04: Building & Running Remote Teams

Aaron and Darren catch up from their last few weeks and dive deep on building and managing remote teams, specifically remote development teams, via a listener question. Darren updates that Whitespark's free review tool has finally launched! Aaron recaps GatherUp's first large conference as an exhibitor at IFA 2019 in Las Vegas.

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FULL SHOW NOTES

00:11 Aaron Weiche: Episode Four - Building and Running Remote Teams.

00:16 INTRO: Welcome to the SAAS Venture Podcast, sharing the adventure of leading and growing a bootstrap SAAS company. Hear the experiences, challenges, wins, and losses shared in each episode, from Aaron Weiche of GatherUp and Darren Shaw of Whitespark. Let's go.

[music]

00:42 AW: Glad to be back on the SaaS Venture Podcast. I'm Aaron.

00:46 Darren Shaw: I'm Darren.

00:47 AW: We are back to recording action, probably three weeks between our last episode, as we've both been a little bit busy taking on other things.

00:56 DS: Yeah.

00:56 AW: And with that, for me, some of the highlights or things that have gone on, one, we did our first large show as an exhibitor. We were at the International Franchise Association convention in Las Vegas, and that was really great. Probably somewhere between 35 and 50 what I would consider solid conversations where we have the contact info of who the buyer would likely be and understand a lot about where they're at in their scenario and things like that. So that was really exciting, and good to get past, too, 'cause there were a lot of unknowns in not having done a show of that size with thousands of attendees. I wanna say there was 4,000 at the show, so that was really helpful to get through.

01:42 DS: You talk to Andrew Beckman there? He's from Location3. He goes on to me about how awesome that show is, it's great...

01:47 AW: Yeah, those guys... Yeah, Location3 had two or three booths there. I didn't make it over to talk to them. I know a couple others from that organization as well, but I saw their booths, didn't talk to them. I was busy talking to prospects, man.

02:01 DS: That's great. So okay, you said you talked to about 35 solid leads when you were there, and then how many of those leads have converted to follow-up conversations, and have you actually closed any of them since you were at the show? 

02:17 AW: Right, so that's the big next phase. The show was just last week, got home Thursday night, and then yeah, this week has been sending out emails, a few responses, and trying to get demos in place. So that's kind of the next piece, and the next of figuring out, "All right, what do those numbers look like?" Because you're totally correct, it's one thing to be excited about... And you need those conversations to start top-of-funnel there, but it is how fast and who are the ones that you can actually get to the table and turn into customers? So I'll definitely have more data on that the next time you and I talk.

02:53 DS: And know what I'd love to know? I would love to know, okay, this is what you spent to go to the show in terms of getting the booth, cost of travel, cost of expenses with hotel and everything while you were there. Then looking at it six months later, and then calculating the lifetime value of the customers that you were able to close from it, and determining what's the ROI on that? Because I always wonder that about exhibiting at conferences. And IFA sounds pretty good, 35 solid leads sounds really good to me, and so I'm curious to know if you actually have a positive ROI in the end.

03:29 AW: Yep, next episode I'll share those numbers and anything of what we're looking at. The really good news, no, it's not cheap to do it, but it only takes a couple of decent deals to easily make that back. And the other thing that I look at, too, is five of our competitors were there, and if we're not there in that conversation and in that room, then we're already losing. So there is some brand awareness and being seen. And this is our first time there, too, we had a lot of people say, "Oh, I've never seen you guys before." So repetition's important. We already signed up for their 2020 event in Orlando. But yeah, next episode, I'll report on where I'm at with those 'cause it definitely is of interest to me as well.

04:08 DS: Yeah, for sure. And there's another side benefit, I think, of these things. So you might have talked to 35 people, but GatherUp was looked at by hundreds, thousands of people. They saw you, they looked at your banner, they got the sense that you do review stuff and that two months later when they're thinking about it, they're like, "Yeah, we should consider GatherUp, we know they're one of the players in this space."

04:34 AW: Absolutely.

04:35 DS: And so there's other stuff, you can't measure that, you don't know who those people were, and you don't know if it's because they saw you at the IFA show.

04:42 AW: Yep, totally correct. And some of the conversations were a little longer term where people are like, "All right, we're in with somebody until this date, but let's stay in touch because I definitely wanna talk to you. It seems like you have more to offer or would be better to work with." So completely.

04:58 DS: Well, that sounds exciting, good.

05:00 AW: Yeah, totally exciting. We were supposed to have a big feature release today on our new inbound text feature called TextBack. We ran into some snags through a carrier, through Verizon this week and kinda had to self-diagnose between Verizon and Twilio, and trying to work with either one of those is almost no help, so a lot of self-investigation. We have a handle on it now, but we had to push back a couple of days till a Monday launch, which pains me, but totally the right thing to do because we couldn't push it out without it working for one of the major carriers consistently.

05:37 DS: Can you describe that feature? How does it work, TextBack? 

05:40 AW: Yeah, so TextBack, each location would have a number, so a local restaurant or a local store would have a mobile number that any customer in the store would see signage or on their receipt that says, "Text the word feedback to this number," And then it auto-replies with the link and says, "Great, now leave us feedback on how your experience was. So it's a easy way for a consumer to self-opt-in, and especially in industries like restaurant or retail, where giving up your email address or your phone number might not be part of the purchase process, but it gives real-time access.

06:14 DS: Oh my god, I love it. That's so good! I really think about that for some of these retail type clients that... They're not collecting emails or phone numbers at the checkout. They don't have time for that, they're not messing around, they're just ringing people's orders, though, right? 

06:31 AW: Yes.

06:32 DS: And so that kind of a thing. And you could also put it on a card that you drop in a bag, right? 

06:36 AW: Absolutely. Any print way or signage way you can get it in front of them can absolutely be used, and yeah, just as you alluded to, you get real-time feedback, you get them through your review process, those are all wins for the customer and the business. And then, yeah, then you can capture their mobile number or their email for future communication as well. So I'm really excited about it, and so that was really hard to know that it was gonna come out today and then be like, "Oh yeah, just kidding, guys. It's gonna be a couple more days," but better to get it right.

07:08 DS: I'm super familiar with that. We're always gonna launch it, and then we're like, "Oh, we found more things. We've gotta figure this out before we can launch."

07:15 AW: Yeah, totally. And other that, we talked last time about rebuilding or buying billing systems. I had a really good demo today with one of the two that I'm looking at, and I think I have a favorite in it, and has all of the things that we needed in the billing system, all of the features. A couple others that were on our wish list but are there, so we kind of turned over a ton of information to them, and they're gonna build out a really detailed personal demo for us in a couple of weeks. And we'll have our larger team on with that, somebody from product and our CFO and myself, and hopefully we can make a decision on that, so that's exciting. 

And then we've had two new hires in the last couple weeks since we talked, too. We hired another developer for our team, so our development team's up to five. And then we've hired a new PM, so one of our co-founders has served in our PM role the last couple years, and he was looking to kind of... He was there because we needed that role filled more so than it being a passion of his. So we've actually brought on an experienced PM, and it's already going awesome, it's been a great hire only two weeks in, and our current PM is super ecstatic, and we're already seeing some benefits of some of his experience. So a lot packed into the last three weeks since we talked.

08:37 DS: That's fascinating, the PM thing. I've always thought about that, having a project manager, a dedicated project manager to oversee stuff. Because right now, that's kind of me, but I do 10 other things at the company, so I'm not the best person to be managing the development projects. And sometimes I'm the road block. It's like, "Okay, we wanna add these features. Hey, Darren, can you describe your vision for this?" I'm like, "Yeah, maybe next week," and they're just sitting around trying to find things to do and picking off bugs from our task system.

09:09 AW:  We've always had a product manager role who oversees that and helps set... For the dev team, helps set priorities for them, and orchestrate the sprints and tickets, be the leader of Jira, all of those types of things. And to me, what it allows me to be is I serve more as that VP of product then, where I can help with vision and direction, and getting feature specs started, and wireframes, and that kind of stuff, but leave that product manager to handle all of the air traffic control-type stuff for what's flying around, 'cause as you know, there's just so much of it.

09:48 DS: That's funny that you mention Jira. I have a developer on my team that said that he would quit immediately on the spot if I ever introduced Jira to the company. [laughter]

10:00 AW: It's one of our core systems, it's great for tracking, ticketing, moving things around everything else. So our team would probably quit without Jira.

10:08 DS: Yeah, it is industry standard. The guy had worked with it at his previous position and he just hated it. And we now use a system called ClickUp that we use to manage all of our tasks, and everybody at the company is madly in love with it. It's amazing, we love ClickUp.

10:22 AW: Nice. Yep. Well, any time you have something that aids in process organization, efficiency, things not falling through the gap, it's such a win, right? 

10:33 DS: Yep, totally. So building system, who's the winner? Are you willing to say, or are you gonna hold that answer...

10:41 AW: Yeah, I'll hold that until we have a final... 'Cause what if they listen to my podcast and then they know how badly I love them and I can't negotiate price even harder? 

10:49 DS: Good point, good point. All right, yeah. [chuckle

10:53 AW: Yeah, I'll definitely share that with you too, especially after we get through... By the time we talk next time, I'll have had this personalized demo and I'll have a very accurate view. And I'll also have the opinions. I've done all this leg work, and now I'm gonna bring in our team and get their reaction to them, so hopefully theirs... I would think theirs will align with mine, but they'll definitely have some different perspectives from their areas of how they interact with it and what they'll have to integrate with it and things like that.

11:21 DS: Yep. All right, well, from my side, have launched our new review tool. We finally did it. We did it, Aaron, can you believe it? 

11:29 AW: Yeah, I feel like we should just shut down the podcast now 'cause that was...
11:34 DS: I know.

11:34 AW: The cliffhanger of every episode, and now what do we have to live for anymore? The review tool has been launched.

11:40 DS: I know, well it's just first version, so we can keep cliffhanging off of the the next version that we're gonna launch of it, which will be a paid version of it. So it was just this free tool now, but we have a broader vision for a paid version, and so we can keep a cliffhanging on that for the next few episodes, for sure.

11:57 AW: Nice. It's the continuous thread through our podcast throughout its life.

12:02 DS: That's right, the life.

12:03 AW: I obviously... I saw lots of tweets, I tweeted about it, I used it, I sent you some feedback on it. How did everything go with it? 

12:12 DS: It went amazing, and Dmitri, our developer of that tool, he's so great. Basically, we have an internal feedback mechanism where it's like, "See something wrong with the results? Click here to leave your feedback." And so we got quite a bit of that, we got about 12 pretty valid reports that we looked at. And so he then just started picking them off, he'd be like, "Okay, I see what's going on here, and we fix it, fix it," and now it's like we tried our best. That's why it took so long to test it very well and get it working to what we thought was 100%, which turns out to be it was about 90%. And then customer stress testing after launch was amazing, because it gave us all this additional feedback, and we found a few extra bugs, and we've stamped them out. Now the thing is just working so nicely, I just love it. It's such a great tool. I'm so happy with how it launched.

13:06 DS: I don't know if I mentioned this last time, but... So it was experimental. We had been looking at... And we'll get into... This is actually quite related to our conversation that we wanna talk about related to remote teams, but we'd been talking about hiring a developer out of Bulgaria, 'cause I have a company established in Bulgaria as well, and so we did some interviewing here and there, and it just... None of the candidates ever really stood out that, "Oh, we have to hire this person." But we had this idea that we would put a job posting out to the local university here and have them send it up to the computing science department, and we probably got about 20 good applications for this part-time job. It's a good job for a comp sci student to get some skills while they're still in school. And this one guy that applied seemed really great, so we hired him. 

He works part-time, he submits his hours, and he's the guy that built the entire tool; no other developers were involved. He built that complete system in about three months, and I'm just so thrilled with it. And so this concept of hiring part-time students is like... I'm like, wow, we had such huge success with Dmitri, I wanna try and find some more developers. And because we're a remote company, I can hire across the whole country, I could hire out of any university in the country. And so I would like to hire a couple more these part-time developers.

14:29 AW: Yeah, that's a... No, as we talk about remote teams, I think that, what you just stated, kinda threads in line with something we can talk about, and it's finding what works for your company and your culture, and knowing that, "Hey, this is something we can repeat based on these things."

14:43 DS: All right, should we talk about remote teams? 

14:45 AW: Yeah, well yeah, before that I wanted to hear about... You went to the LSA, the Local Search Association event in San Diego, and I know you talked there, but how was that event?

14:55 DS: Yeah, so that was great. It was early last week. It's the first time I've been to an LSA event, and it's more businessy than agencies, so lots of the events, like the Local U events, or you go to MozCon or some of the... MnSearch Summit, you get a lot of agencies and SEO people at these events. LSA was great because there's a lot of big business, there's a lot of vendors there, so you have... A lot of the SaaS players in our local search space were there. So the conversations were very interesting, it was great to look at other products, I had some great talks with Neil Crist from Moz. And my presentation went really well, too. I was bringing local search ranking factors, which I was a bit worried would be... People are getting tired of hearing it, but it seems to me like the audience, it was fresh info for them, so that was also good.

15:47 DS: But some of the topics were really good, and one that I got a lot of value out of was this topic on churn. So the session title was Customer Retention, Reducing Churn, and Moz looked at this, and so Neil Crist from Moz gave an interesting presentation with a few takeaways about... They did this report, it was sort of this state of the local search industry. They surveyed a bunch of people, and so he went through that report. And Brendan King did a presentation on... They analyzed over 2000 SMBs for this retention study, and they've been studying this for over three years, and they were asked a number of questions, and so they were able to pull from their data, which was... A number of them were things like does the quantity of products that a single SMB is purchasing affect retention? And the resounding answer was yes.


16:48 DS: So if you have multiple products, and you can get the person to sign up for more than one, then their retention rate will go through the roof. And it makes a lot of sense because they would become dependent on you for many different things. It's not just this one thing that they could easily find a competitor for, it's like, "We like to have all of our stuff with Whitespark. We've got our review management there, we've got our rank tracking, we have our citation analysis, we're using them for our citation building." So if you look at... In my business's case, if I looked at all of our clients and I found the ones that have lots of different products and services, those are the clients that'd be the most likely to stick with us. And so the takeaway there is cross-sell. If you can cross-sell, you can get all of your clients... If someone's on one thing but not the other, getting them to be interested in using some of these other products will definitely have a positive impact on retention. I thought that was a pretty interesting insight. And of course, you wanna do that anyways, that cross-selling.

17:53 DS: One thing I thought was interesting was user engagement. So this is something that I don't do a good job of measuring, but I would like to measure more. They found 151% lift in retention if you can get a person engaged in your product every day. So GatherUp is really well-positioned for this, if you have people logging in every day and adding new customers, then that's a great way to get them actively engaged on a regular basis, if you think about our product. So the takeaway there is what is the value you can provide that makes your tool indispensable? What is the metric you can give them that will help them on a daily basis? And so I've been thinking about that and trying to figure out what we can do in our products for each of... How can I get someone coming back to the tool every day? It's on their start button, it's part of their daily morning routine where they check something. If you help them get that, then you'll definitely get a higher retention rate.

18:52 DS: Adding more services makes you indispensable. I think that's what we talked about, so sort of expanding your services. I don't know, would that apply to you? We could do it because we are this all-in-one... We wanna provide a whole bunch of stuff around local search, whereas you just focus on reviews. And Vendasta is... Their data is gonna be skewed towards this because they do offer a massive marketplace of all these different products and services, right?

19:17 AW: Yep.

19:18 DS: They did say that that would have an impact, the more different things that people sign up for. I don't know how... How could that apply to GatherUp, do you think?

19:25 AW: Yeah, for us it kind of applies into all the different things that you can do. Reviews is the easiest thing people understand about us, but when you get into, you... Just as you alluded to, you wanna be adding customers. Some do that manually, some do it through an automation tying into their CRM or their POS, so that's good. But the feedback coming in daily, and reading each piece of feedback that comes in, then using... We have a feature called auto-tagging that helps you build themes of what they're talking about. In April, we're launching a report that'll help you see the sediment of all the different mentions that they have, and which ones are impacting your five-star reviews, which ones are impacting your one-star reviews, replying to customers, replying to reviews, replying to direct first-party reviews.

20:14 AW: So yeah, there's definitely a lot of opportunity for that, what they're getting after, what we internally just call that stickiness, like how do you become something... We actually had a great comment from a new customer we brought on of decent size, a well-known brand, and the first day they launched they basically said to our customer success team, they were like, "We're addicted to watching the screen and watching new feedback come in," and that's one of those you're like, bam, hooked. So trying to find ways to achieve those. And yeah, churn is such a... It's an important thing we talk about a lot, we measure it by customer segments, we look at it a lot, and we're constantly talking on ways to reduce it. And it's kind of different for each of our different segments between a small business, a multi-location business, and an agency reseller as what leads to account churn.

21:07 DS: Yep, that makes sense. Another thing that I though was pretty cool from the presentation was this concept of verticalization. So if you service a specific industry, let's say it's healthcare, or it's storage, or it's legal. So if you focus on that, apparently, according to their data, you have a 34% lift in retention, you're gonna retain your customers better. And I think that makes sense, too. People think, "Well, I'm working with a specialist in that particular area."

21:39 AW: Yep. Even when it comes down to your messaging, right? You're speaking their language.

21:43 DS: Yes.

21:43 AW: You understand what they're trying to achieve, the nuances and context of their relationships. We definitely see the same thing, and that's been a slow-moving change for us is getting from trying to be everything to everyone to really focusing and saying, "Yeah, we'll take you if you're these other things, but we've really found out that there's five or six industries that we work really well with, and we should try to maximize that."

22:08 DS: That's interesting, yeah. I've also thought of this as one of the future things, 'cause we're building a larger all-in-one local marketing platform and service, and so once we have that it's... The Whitespark version is the general public one, so it's like, "Yes, we offer this to any industry, and it's gonna work just fine for any industry." But one of the things that's funny is that the service is actually exactly the same. For the most part, it doesn't really have much of a difference if you're in storage versus healthcare; there's very few differences.

But we could identify those differences and then speak to them and adjust the software just a tiny bit to meet those different needs and launch a new version of it. It'd be like... Let's say it was storage, it'd be like the storagelocalmarketingsystem.com, and it's basically exactly our system and exactly our services and our processes, but tweaked slightly and a whole new marketing platform for it, and it's sort of this verticalization that we would... It would all be run from the one company, and so it's like storage marketing provided by Whitespark, but it looks like it's... So in some sense, it's really just the perception, the perception that you're getting a storage-specific system. You know what I mean?

23:30 AW: Yeah, no, there's a lot of opportunities for personalization in your marketing, that's a big win.

23:35 DS: And maybe they would be on a different domain and everything would log in different, and it would be branded slightly different, but generally it's the same product. It's an idea I've had, particularly around automotive, actually. I think there's an opportunity in automotive.

23:47 AW: Nice, I like it. You might have to further that one down the line.

23:50 DS: Yes, we'll talk about that later.

23:52 AW: All right.

23:53 DS: That's much later.

23:54 AW: Cool. Well, hey, that's... We have been busy, that's a lot of updates, and so let's get to our main topic for the day. And this is kind of fun, it actually comes from... We actually had a listener question, so some validation for us, we at least have one person listening on a regular basis, which is awesome. Kane Jamison reached out to us on Twitter, he is the founder of Content Harmony, and he shared in a tweet, "I know a part of Darren's team is distributed internationally. I'd love to hear more about making that work for SaaS development and building a team of devs in a manner that would be pretty interesting. What are policies and safeguards to make that successful?" So I thought we both actually run remote teams, my dev team's overseas as well, so I saw this as a great talking point on the things that we see being important to building and having a remote team. So maybe real quick, Darren, do you just wanna touch on your team size and what your distribution looks like? 

24:54 DS: Yeah, totally. We have a team size right now of five, and so that's... There's three in Edmonton... Two in Edmonton, one in Calgary, one in Nanaimo, BC, and Dmitri, our part-timer, is in Edmonton as well. So we haven't gone international for our dev team.

25:15 AW: Yep. The five is just your dev team?

25:18 DS: Yep, that's just the dev team. The company's bigger than that. I have a whole company established in Bulgaria that is our service side, so they do all of our citation, audit, and clean-up service.

25:27 AW: And how many do you have over there?


25:29 DS: I think it's around 12.

25:31 AW: Okay.

25:31 DS: Yeah. And then that team is led by Nyagoslav Zhekov, and he is actually located in Malaysia, so we're all over the place. We definitely have a lot of employees. And I've got one in the US, and then most of the other team, like support and SEO and marketing, that is in Edmonton, except for Allie, and Allie's SEO, and she's over in Toronto. So yeah, we're all over the place for sure.

26:00 AW: Yeah, and same with us, we're a team size of 18 total. Our dev team of five is all overseas, four in Poland, and one is in the island of Cypress, he used to live in Poland, but moved to the island of Cypress maybe two years ago now, so same type. And then the rest of our company distributed between the US and Canada as well. We do have a little bit of a nucleus here in the Minneapolis area now, just from people in my network that I've recruited or hired on, so we do have five people here in the Twin Cities now, just from how connections and past work experiences work. But other than that, all across coast to coast.

26:41 DS: So that's interesting, how come Poland? How did you end up building a team there? 

26:45 AW: Yeah, our lead engineer, Lucas, who is located in Cypress. I believe Don, one of our co-founders, originally found him on WorkUp or one of those types of sites, and ended up just on a contract, and dove into it, and did really well. And yeah, he's been with us ever since, four plus years now. So it's one of those, just an internet job board and that's how it happened and where we chose to go. The thing that's allowed it to grow, at first what we tried to do is, in the early days we ran our company very flat, there wasn't somebody who owned a department or was a manager, or a lead, or anything else like that. And we tried to, "All right, let's hire a dev here." We hired a dev from India, we hired a dev from Mongolia, we hired a dev from Texas. And what ended up happening on almost all of those is they failed for one reason or another, either culture fit or communication, or quality of work.

27:47 AW: And we finally just went back to Lucas and said, "All right, you're fantastic. You're basically writing everything in the app right now. Who do you wanna hire?" And that led him to being the one to building the team. So he's the one now that, if we know we have room to expand, like with this recent hire, I go and be like, "Hey, we have the ability, we either need a developer or a senior developer. You know what you kinda need as far as a skill set to be complementary and what you need," and he goes through the process of posting, and interviewing, and giving out the tests, and following up, and then coming back to me and being like, "All right, here's the one or two, and which one do you think or why, or here's the one I suggest, and here's salary requirements," and it goes from there. So for us, we ended up learning, letting him own that and build a team that responds to him well, that he can own, that he can train, absolutely the right way to go. And we have a great team of rockstars now, and I'm happy that we're adding one more.

28:40 DS: Awesome, and then I had a question: How do you pay your remote dev team? 

28:45 AW: Yeah, we pay them as contractors, so it's an hourly rate, but we do... Once they've been with us for a while, we do do some benefits of paid holidays and things like that that we allow them to include on their invoice. So it is a contractor relationship, but we treat them as a direct member of our team. They're not a contractor at arm's length, they're all on all-team calls and things like that, so it is... Minus the way you have to handle paperwork and out-of-country employees and things like that, we handle them as a contractor.

29:18 DS: Yeah, and do they invoice you and you pay them through PayPal? Is that the method?

29:23 AW: Oh boy, I'd have to ask on how we pay them, but yes, they invoice and we pay them, and they get paid... It's one of the benefit... Many of them have commented, "I submit and you guys pay me right away, always on time, not used to getting that on all our deals," and I think that's where we've seen our retention. Everyone minus this new hire, we hired... All of our devs have just been with us for years now. Our second most recent hire came on maybe eight or nine months ago, and then now that is the next one that we're just hiring right now. So we've had... Everything that Lucas has done, we've had great retention, we've had a couple that haven't worked out along the lines, but he's just done a great job.

30:03 DS: How do they report their hours? Do they give you a sort of sheet that explains, "Okay, for this day I worked three hours, and this is what I was working on on those days"? 

30:11 AW: Yeah, we really haven't had to, just based on... With this group, we haven't had to be that detailed. They put together their hours, but everything that they're doing is there in Jira, and we work very outcome-based. It's all about hitting the goals in our sprints, and getting the things accomplished, and closing tickets out. And we have a much tighter pulse on it than having to measure up, like, "Worked on this feature for three hours, this feature for two hours." We don't have to get that specific. Now, as we grow we might have to, or if we hit some under to average performers, we might have to, but with the group we have right now, I don't have to coach people up on, "I need you to work harder." More than anything in our company right now, sometimes I have to tell people, "Hey, step back, take a few days off, [chuckle] don't be so dedicated," which is both a blessing and a curse.

31:03 DS: Sounds good, yeah. And now let's talk a little bit about communication with this remote team. So do you talk to them or does your lead developer do all of the organization of this dev team? 

31:18 AW: Yeah, it kind of splits into a few different ways. Lucas, our lead, is the most fluent in English. He speaks English very well. He and I almost daily on Slack or in conversations, every now and then we'll do a phone call. We have a weekly meeting that Lucas is always part of as the head of engineering, and then once a month the entire dev team will join us as well. So we keep a lot of open lines of communication. We're actually looking at right now one of the... We lay out budgets for education and materials and things like that. And I think actually some of our dev team actually wants to take English classes just because that is...

31:58 DS: Cool.

32:00 AW: Yeah, yeah, really cool, right? And it helps unify the team even more.

32:03 DS: That is one the big benefits for our Bulgarian team, so I'll cover up to $1200 in Bulgarian dollars, Bulgarian leva per year for English language training, because it helps them with their job, so I'm happy to give them that. They have to go on their own time, off-hours or whatever, but I will pay the expense.

32:26 AW: Yep, no, that's great, that's an awesome, awesome perk. Yeah, it's things like that. And then separate to our all-team meeting, then the product team, so five engineers in Poland... We do have two part-time front-end devs in the US that are local here in the Twin Cities that handle front-end, then our product manager, our lead designer, and our product marketer, they're all on a call once a week as well where they all participate, going through the sprints, the features, all the things that are there. So our team, we've established a lot of both fixed and loose communication that really helped bridge all that stuff together.

33:04 AW: And then lastly, we just have to be delicate. It's an eight-hour time difference for me in the Central Time Zone, so you know... I know if I get up early at 5:00 or 6:00 AM, that's a great time to be talking, interacting with those guys, as their window closes around 10:00 or 11:00 AM for us.

33:24 DS: Right. You ever get up at 5:00 or 6:00 AM?

33:26 AW: I do all the time.

33:27 DS: Oh my god.

[laughter]

33:29 AW: Once upon a time, Darren, I would work until 5:00 AM and then go to bed, but having four kids, that definitely changes how those things go. So I often will wake up around 5:00 AM, and I'm on email by 5:30 and Slack by 5:30 or 6:00 AM. And I find it to be really productive. I'll do a couple hours and then a lot of times I'll go to the gym for an hour, and then I'm in the office by 9:00, but I've already cranked out a couple hours of work before that.

33:56 DS: And you're in bed by 10:00, roughly? 

33:58 AW: Absolutely. I'm an old man that way, and if you stretch me... When we were at that show in Vegas, and the last night we stayed out till 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, I was wrecked the next day. [chuckle]

34:09 DS: Sure. [chuckle] Yeah, yeah. For us, by the time we get Violet to bed, it might be 8:30, 9:00 o'clock, and that's the only time Jill and I have to hang out, so we'll watch a show while we fold laundry, and it's always 11:30, midnight, 12:30 by the time we're in bed sleeping, so I don't know, I can't do ten o'clock.

34:33 AW: I know. I know you run a little later than me just from the emails I get from you sometimes are when I'm sleeping, so...

34:39 DS: Yeah, right.

34:40 AW: So one thing I wanted to circle back to with hiring your student and that working out so well, do you feel that's because of... You have a really good training process in place or a really good peer system? That to me, any time you hire someone with less experience or no experience, you're really dependent on do you have the right onboarding and training and guardrails to make them successful? What does that look like for you guys, or what did you learn in this process? 

35:10 DS: Sure, great question. We do not have an excellent... We have a terrible onboarding process, it's like, "Hey, here's a project. Can you work on it?" And so I think we mostly just lucked out with Dmitri. So you hire somebody... One of the big things, I think, if you're gonna hire somebody is you have to hire... Especially if it's a student, you're not hiring somebody that just is talking... Only has school experience. They must have built applications in their own free time, that's the kind of person you wanna hire. When you know that they can take a concept to application to delivery and launch something into the world, once they've done that once or twice, that's the kind of person that I would wanna hire. 

So I would never hire a student that did not have that under their belt. And so Dmitri had that. He had built a couple of things in the past, and so we knew he had the ability, and we also knew that he worked with our exact development stack. So Laravel and Vue, that's what we build everything in, and that's where he built his applications in, so we knew he could just hit the ground running. He did not need any training, he knew how to build applications.

36:18 DS: And so we have a good support system through Slack where it's like, "Okay, any questions come up?" 'Cause he did have to interface with some of our crawling technology in order to build this thing. And so our dev team would support him. So if he has a question, he would pose it to the dev team in the dev channel and Slack, and he would get answers. And I would direct him there for a few things too. I'd be like, "Oh, you might not know, but we have this thing, and here's a link to it, it's one of our admin tools," and he's like, "Oh perfect. I could definitely use this."

36:49 DS: And so he had the ability to program out of the gate, and those would be the requirements for hiring students going forward. First, number one, they are already really familiar with our particular development stack, we don't have to train them. And number two, they have launched applications to the world that we can actually play with, use, try out, and even look at their code for those applications. So that's the way we'll hire students in the future. And if I put a job posting out to five universities and none of the applicants have that, then it's no big deal. In fact, I'm gonna put those as requirements in the application, and I will actively discourage people from applying if they don't have that, because we don't wanna get overwhelmed with resumes from people that we know we're not gonna talk to.

37:34 AW: Yeah, those are great ideas for sure. One other thing that I would add to that that I've always adhered to and I think our team here has learned and adapted to is just short cycles when you show your work and share it, instead of taking it...

37:50 DS: Oh, yeah.

37:50 AW: Yeah, being head down for two weeks, and then when you emerge it's the wrong direction with the wrong thing and everything. It's like, no, every day let's surface some work so that we can see we're on the right path.

38:01 DS: Yeah, and I was pretty blessed to have Jessie actually. Jessie was a very strong project manager for this, because she was constantly looking at the tool and thinking about it from the user perspective, and being like, "Oh, well, what about this, what about that?" And so her and Dmitri worked really hand-in-hand to push this thing into production, and I would pop in every few days and offer my suggestions. And so there was a lot of collaboration with this project. It wasn't just like Dmitri is in his dorm room working on this for three weeks, and then comes out, and we'd be like, "Oh, that's all wrong." Yeah, no, it was active collaboration every time he was working, which was great.

38:44 AW: Yep, totally. How do you guys... Another key thing to me is how do you replicate the happy hour culture or the grab a friend and go to lunch culture that you get in a physical office when things are remote? Do you guys look at that at all, or how do you help them develop these personal relationships when everybody's kind of walled off to each other, to a certain extent? 

39:06 DS: Yeah, it's a really great question. We've struggled with it for our entire existence. There are a few things: One, we have our daily scrum channel, people can put in what they've got there. We try to encourage calls, so different teams will get on calls and talk about stuff rather than just doing it all typing through Slack. We find that to be productive. We have a channel in Slack which is our really weak version of some kind of culture. We call it Fun Times, where people can just post, "Hey, look at this hilarious video on the internet."

39:42 AW: We have that, it's called... Ours is just called the Random Channel. [chuckle]

39:46 DS: The Random Channel, right. Someone comes across something funny on the internet and they share it, and then people talk about it. And other things that get shared in Fun Times are just like someone's working on a renovation project in their house, and so they'll post photos of like, "Hey, look, I installed my sink last night, check it out." And so the Fun Times channel is exactly that, it's this sort of water cooler where people can just chat about stuff with their colleagues.

40:13 DS: And it's helpful, but it doesn't get us as close to a culture of face-to-face as we would like, and so we also, with our local Edmonton team, we get together once a month, every third Friday of the month we have... We call it a Team Day, and it's generally a pretty unproductive day. It's slightly productive because we get that face time where we can talk about projects, but there's not a ton of work getting done on those days because we haven't seen each other for a month, and so we chat, and we talk about life, and we drink coffee, and then we all go for a nice meal together, and the company picks up the bill all day, and we all just hang out. And we always go home early on those days, too. I leave at 3:30 and I go to the gym, and everyone else basically leaves at 3:30 so they can miss traffic. So it's just one of these days where we... It's productive in it being a break, and it's productive in us getting some face time and hanging out a little bit, and collaborating on projects in person.

41:13 AW: Yeah, no, that's good, those are definitely some good ideas. And that's just an area for people, I think, to really think about. We try to get past those in the Random Channel in Slack, and encouraging communication, and sharing what people are doing personally. Last year we did our first all-North American summit, so we brought everybody in from California, Washington, New York, Toronto, all into Minnesota, and we rented out this 12-bedroom cabin in Northern Minnesota, and that week was amazing. We had 13 people all together, and did small groups, and did breakouts, and it was nine to five work. And then we did an escape room mystery room, we did dinners together, we went out on the boat, just did as many of those things as possible. And this year we're gonna try to do one in Toronto so that all of our guys from Poland can come over and do an all-company. But that one week of face time and being around each other and having personal conversations and beers or burgers or whatever it is, that just catapults you so much further forward than a Slack call.

42:23 DS: And I think that... On one hand, I believe that the regular office chit-chat is overrated. People don't actually want that. They love the fact that they... Most of my employees enjoy that they can be at home and not having someone show up at their cubicle asking them questions. They get to focus on their work, get stuff done, and I think they're more productive. But eventually it gets a little quiet and lonely, and so it's nice to get out once in a while, and it's nice to check in on our Random Channels. When we had our Christmas party, we flew in employees from the rest of Canada, and so we had a nice team day that day where it was easy, and then in the afternoon we all went bowling together, which was fun, and then we had a really nice Christmas dinner. So that was the one time that I've flown people in. I generally don't have the budget to do these kinds of summit that you describe, but we'll get it there.

43:19 AW: Yep. We've just... We didn't the first few years, and now we've just made it part of it. And we have a lot of other small team get-togethers and executive retreats and things like that where we might pull in other people if they're located close by just to try to further that face time as well. But to your comments on getting rid of some of the noise and the daily chit-chat and things like that, the way I just frame this up is I wanna build a company where it's really about working at your best. And everyone is different from that, some people crave people. 

So with that, if somebody needs a co-working space, or we just got an office in a co-working space here in the Twin Cities 'cause we have five people here, so we got an office that has three desks, but any of the five can rotate in and use it, and there's public spaces there too, and then we can rent the conference room there for when we need to have a bigger meeting.

44:10 AW: So to me it's where do you work at your best? And for some people it is in complete silence, never leaving their house and whatever else, and for others, they need some stimulation, or they want collaboration, or they want human interaction. And I think I'm trying to work towards that, how do we provide as many of our employees with as many of those opportunities to work at their best? 

44:30 DS: Yep, no, that's really good. Co-working has come up in my company too, and I keep going back and forth on it. I'm still trying to decide if it makes sense. Now, do you find the co-working space sits empty much? 

44:42 AW: We've only been into it three or four weeks and so I haven't... I've made it in there three or four times myself. Now, next week we have two people flying into town, they're coming in to meet the rest of the Minnesota team 'cause a couple of them haven't met face-to-face, so we will have seven or eight people in there. We're doing a happy hour with our part-time dev, so we'll be making crazy use of it next week, and then after that, I don't know. I would like to think that there's one out of our four or five in there every day or every other day, but I'll have to set up a Nest cam to know that. [chuckle]

45:18 DS: You spy on them.

45:20 AW: [chuckle] They'd love that.

45:23 DS: [chuckle] Exactly. Aaron's checking out the co-working office all the time. You get nothing done 'cause you're just staring at the camera.

45:29 AW: Totally. All right, well, I think those are... I think we alluded to communication is very key within remote teams, understanding, and as you pointed out, hiring people that have already done the right things, that are self-starters, that can work autonomously. That's really important. And then finding a way to build and instill culture and make people feel connected and that they belong, not only to the mission and vision of the company, but to their peers and to each other are definitely key aspects in building a remote team, development team or not.

46:04 DS: Yeah. And it's hard. It is harder with remote to build that connection between the employees, but, I don't know, maybe it's not that necessary. It's been working very well for us for almost over 10 years now. So yeah, it's been good for us.

46:18 AW: Yeah. Awesome.

46:20 DS: Yep.

46:21 AW: So we've gone pretty extended today, but maybe... What's a couple of things that you have going on or you'll be up to in the next few weeks before we talk again? 

46:30 DS: Yeah. I'm a little bit slammed trying to get ready for Brighton. I have to do a full day of training, and I have to do a presentation as well. So I've been dong this interesting case study. This is all local search stuff, not really SaaS stuff. And so I'm busy with that. In terms of team development and SaaS launches, we're plowing through on our review checker tool, so trying to build the paid version of that. We're also getting pretty close to launching our updated version of the local citation finder. So I can definitely talk about some of the development stuff that's going on in those. And I got a bunch of tweaks to make to our rank tracker. I don't know, just keep plugging away at all of this stuff. I don't have anything really big on their horizon over the next few weeks.

47:16 AW: That's the name of the game is keep plugging away, isn't it? 

47:18 DS: Yep, one foot in front of the other.

47:20 AW: I'm hoping... Hopefully we'll talk about our launch of a few different features, a couple of UI enhancements that are somewhat related, I'll tie it back to when we talk next time. Some of it is to help address some churn and things we see as needing to happen and trying to make that easier for the customer and our product. And that TextBack feature, that inbound SMS feature, I'm really excited to get that. Our beta tests have gone really well, so I'm excited to get that out. And then next week I'm going to London for a week. But yeah, just vacation, just my wife and I, and yeah, I tried to book a meeting with a client and a prospect meeting and she said, "No way, I rarely get time with you." So it is seven days of vacation, so I had to give in.

48:07 DS: And so wait, what are the dates of those?

48:09 AW: March 14th through the 21st.

48:11 DS: Fantastic. When you get back you can tell me all the things that I should do when I'm in London for a couple days.

48:16 AW: All right, I will scout it out for you and set you up with Aaron's TripAdvisor.

48:22 DS: Wonderful, yeah, sounds good.

48:24 AW: All right. Well, fantastic work, my friend. We covered a heck of a lot today, our longest episode ever. We'll have to work on being less wordy or tackling less topics next time, but hopefully everyone found it...

48:35 DS: Less topics.

48:35 AW: Yeah, [chuckle] less topics, there you go, because the conversation on it is great.

48:39 DS: Yeah, it's been good. Thank you, Aaron. Good time.

48:42 AW: Yep. Thanks, Darren. Thanks everyone for joining us on The SaaS Venture, and we'll talk to you next time. And don't forget, if you love what you're hearing, please drop us a review in iTunes. And just as we did this week, we would love to answer if there are listener questions. You can ping either Darren and I on Twitter. We are both very active and easy to track down there. So we'll talk to you next time.

49:04 DS: Talk to you next time.

[outro music]
The Saas Venture Podcast from Aaron Weiche and Darren Shaw