The Rewards & Challenges of Running a Remote Business: A Talk with Liam Martin
How can you successfully manage a remote working team? What skills and personality traits should you look for when you hire remote employees? How can you tell if someone’s going through personal difficult times if you never get to interact with them face to face? How to work efficiently while traveling?
These are just a few of the topics that I was curious to learn more about from Liam Martin, a Canada-based entrepreneur. Liam’s an expert when it comes to all aspects of remote working. He’s the co-founder and CMO of two businesses with a fully remote team: tens of employees spread across 27 countries. Liam and his business partner also live in opposite corners of the globe. Liam’s in Ottawa, Canada, while Rob Rawson, his co-founder, lives in Sydney, Australia.
Liam and Rob started together Time Doctor and Staff.com, two platforms that help individuals and organizations be productive while working remotely. These are productivity tools that solved first and foremost Liam’s own needs. Before starting Time Doctor six years ago, he was running a tutoring business with 100 employees, and it was difficult to clearly see what his remote tutors were doing. Time Doctor is now one of the world’s leading time tracking softwares for remote teams.
Now time for a disclaimer. My talk with Liam was planned to be released as part of The CEO Library podcast. Unfortunately, because of technical issues that I (Cristina) take full responsibility and blame for, the recording’s quality isn’t decent enough to make it public and also be comfortable with the decision. So, instead of releasing a bad audio quality podcast episode, I chose instead to transcribe our discussion – you can read the whole chat below.
If you’re subscribed to our newsletter, you also received an email with the main ideas and lessons that we can learn from Liam.
Besides what I mentioned above, in the first paragraph, we also talked about:
– The distraction economy and if it’s possible to control technology and not let it control us (I almost convinced Liam to close his social media accounts 😛 ).
– How to create a routine for working away from home, and how Liam’s travel routine looks like.
– The process of figuring out if someone’s the right fit for a remote working team.
– The different work clothes of your employees and why you need to adapt to them.
– Why it’s important to have yearly evaluations of employees and the most common reasons for firing remote workers.
One more thing before I leave you with the transcript. Liam also runs the Running Remote conference, that covers every part of building a remote team. The event was held this weekend (June 23-24, 2018) in beautiful Ubud, Bali and had awesome speakers such as:
- Joel Gascoigne – Buffer‘s co-founder and CEO
- Sara Sutton Fell – founder of FlexJobs and Remote.co
- Amir Salihefendic – Founder & CEO of Doist
- Dominic Price – Head of R&D and Work Futurist at Atlassian
- Lara Owen – Director of Global Workplace Operations at GitHub
- Sarah Kuehnle – Head of Product at Dribbble
- Andrea Loubier, CEO of Mailbird, whom we had the pleasure of interviewing last year
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the conference this year, but I’ll surely be there in 2019 – it’s a must-attend for any entrepreneur who wants to learn more about all the aspects of successfully managing a remote team.
Also make sure that you read our first interview with Liam, about his favorite books.
The Rewards & Challenges of Running a Remote Business: A Talk with Liam Martin
Cristina: Hi, Liam! Hello and thanks for accepting to be a guest on The CEO Library podcast!
Cristina: How are you? Good morning!
Liam: I’m pretty good. It is a good morning for me. I know it’s a good afternoon for you. Or evening, I guess. I’m here, I’m ready to answer all of your questions.
Cristina: Great, cause I have a lot of questions since I’m personally running a remote team and I know you have lots of experience with that. So, let’s go back 6 or 7 years ago, when you first started staff.com and Time Doctor, your companies. Please tell me more about how your life looked like back then.
Liam: 7 years ago I was in graduate school, I believe. That might have been 8-9 years ago, at McGill University and, I remember this very clearly, I was in my supervisor’s office, because I had just taught my first class at the university. For anyone who doesn’t know how grad school works: you usually get to be teaching assistant for many years and then, if you’re lucky enough, they give you a class to teach. Well, lucky enough… it’s very cheap labor for the university to be able to have a graduate student that teaches a class. So I had that opportunity, I started with 300 students and by the end of the semester, I only had about 150 left. It was a disaster, I was not very good at teaching.
I remember going into my supervisor’s office and saying “I’m not very good at this” and he said “No, you’re not”. And I said “Where does that leave me?” and he said “Well, if you want to do anything fun in academia, you’re going to have to do teaching for the next 10 to 20 years before you even get to start to do the fun stuff, so either you get really good at teaching, much better than you are, or figure out something else to do”.
6 weeks later, I threw a Master’s thesis under his door and I just got out of academia. It wasn’t for me. And that turned into an online tutoring company which I ended up selling, and I had a whole bunch of other little adventures in between.
But the core problem that I had was that I was running these remote businesses and I couldn’t quantify exactly how long someone was working inside of that business. So, I would be unable to really understand (let’s say you run an agency) how many hours did they spend and what were they doing and were they the best people to put on that particular job. And that’s basically what Time Doctor solves, which is remote team time analytics. So we not only analyze how long someone works, but what they did while they were working, so they become effective as an employee and that was something I said to myself I want to commit the next 5 to 10 years of my life to. So, Time Doctor is 6 years old, so that puts me right over the 5 year mark today.
Cristina: That’s probably one of the biggest counter-arguments, when someone wants to start a remote team: “Oh, how am I going to see if my employees really are working or they are just wasting time on Facebook or whatever else?”
Liam: That’s it! And we basically solve that problem. So, we call ourselves 2 things. Number one: we’re the Trojan horse of remote work. We usually work our way into an organization that wouldn’t be open to remote work in the first place, because we can provide the level of trust that the employer is looking for to be able to start remote work agreements. And that’s really what we’re focused on as a company.
Our mission statement is: we want to empower workers to work wherever they want, whenever they want. And that’s something that we truly believe in. Our entire team is remote. We have employees in 27 different countries all over the world, and we really focus on that as a core – kinda mission statement – and that’s why we do things like staff.com, our other product, which is remote for corporate teams and then, more importantly, our conference in Bali, called Running Remote, where we are building a conference on collaborating and figuring out how to build the first billion dollar remote business.
Cristina: How has the remote working perception evolved in the past years? This might just be my own bubble but it seems like more and more companies are jumping into this wagon and they have at least part of their employees working remote.
Liam: There is a lot of that that’s currently happening. The data is quite interesting: it’s two sided. 43% of the US workforce, as an example, worked remotely in some way in 2017. You think that that’s quite high. However, only 3% of US workers worked remotely full-time. So, you have 43% that worked remote some of the time, and I think that “some of the time” is maybe their Friday afternoons or something like that, or one Tuesday a month. You want to be able to help that develop.
I think that right now, we’re kind of in the testing phase for remote work. My true feeling is that remote work could be 10X. I foresee the US market having 30% remote workers, particularly people that only need to work from a computer, because that work can be done anywhere. Why would you do it inside of a depressing gray box, in an office with fluorescent lighting, when you can do it at home or you can do it at a co-working space or you can do it on a beach somewhere? We feel like that’s a better way to work and there’s a lot of quantitative data to back it up and say it is the right way to work! That’s what we’re trying to communicate to customers.
Cristina: And from what I’ve noticed so far, most people, when they do work from an office, they do their job either before the working hours or afterwards, after everybody leaves and goes home because those are the hours when they are most productive and when they can work uninterrupted.
Liam: I’ve been studying how different people work, different types of workers work. My degrees were all in sociology, so I find it very interesting to see what people do with their time. And developers are basically these people that kind of work much like writers. For anyone who has a tech company right now: developers don’t work on a 9-to-5 schedule. They will start coding at 10 p.m. and they might go till 5 o’clock in the morning and then they’ll be asleep for the next 3 days. That’s going to be the most productive output for them. So just because productivity or work hours look a certain way to you, it doesn’t mean that that same model is going to apply to a developer or a marketer or a customer support agent or whoever it might be. They all have different work clothes and you need to adapt to them.
Cristina: And it’s better for their productivity, to follow their own rhythm. Some might be night owls, as you mentioned, and others might be really early risers and it just depends. OK, I want to go back to how you started staff.com and Time Doctor. You co-founded these with Rob Rawson. How did you two meet?
Liam: I was speaking on a panel at a conference in Austin, Texas, called South by Southwest, which is kind of like Spring Break for nerds. It’s a couple hundred thousand people that all come together and they talk about technology in the first third of the conference, the second third is music and the third is film. I get out way before the music and the film starts, because it’s just not who I am, I’m much more interested in the technology part. So, I was speaking at a conference there and I was introduced to Rob though a mutual friend. He had a very early alpha of a product that he was trying to build and it was basically the concept of Time Doctor. And I realised that that was a product that could completely change my tutoring business, which I was currently building, because it would allow me to very clearly see what all of my remote tutors were doing and get a much more precise billing system in place. So I realised hey, you know what? that’s I want to do. We partnered up and it’s been 6 years later.
Cristina: Where is he based?
Liam: He is based in Sydney, Australia. And I’m based in Ottawa, Canada. So we’re literally on full opposite sides of the planet.
Cristina: How often do you guys meet?
Liam: We usually meet 2 to 3 times a year. We try to make sure that we meet at least once a year, and we’ll usually do it at out North American retreat where we all come together and discuss how the year went and what we want to do next year.
Cristina: Do you travel a lot? You’re based in Canada but the rest of the year, if you feel like working from Australia or wherever, do you just leave and go work from there?
Cristina: OK, that was the fastest answer.
Liam: I have a MacBook, I have an anchor power-brick which is really awesome. These new MacBooks, that are USB type C, you can power your laptop off the batteries. I pretty much 20 hours of battery life that I carry with me. Last year I’ve been to Mainland China for a month or two, I’ve always to visit Mainland China, I did a month in Costa Rica, I’m going to be doing a month in Bali for Running Remote and for our own team retreat. I’m going to Spain for a conference and I’ll probably hang out in Spain for a couple of weeks. I’ll be going to the US, I fly to the US probably a dozen times a year. I travel everywhere I want because I can. That’s the beauty of working remotely.
Cristina: Do you have a routine that you follow when you’re on the road?
Liam: Yes. the first thing I do is I figure out an Airbnb. My assistant is really the one that handles a lot of these things for me. However, you can do this yourself. If you’re listening to this and thinking to yourself “oh, I wanna be able to implement this”, don’t let that stop you, but I want to be completely honest with the way I do it.
So, I’ll say “hey, I want to go to China. How do I go to China?” and she’ll usually get back to me within a day and she’ll say “Well, you need a visa, and these are the areas where you wanna go, here are the Airbnbs that I think you’ll be able to set up at”. And I usually try to stay at Airbnbs if it’s longer than a week. I’ll stay at the hotel if it’s a couple of days but you don’t really get into a work-mode at hotels. I find it anyway, that’s my personal preference. I like an Airbnb that can have a second bedroom, and usually a two-bedroom Airbnb is going to cost you the same as a single hotel room. So I set that second bedroom up as my office, and/or, if there’s a really cool co-working space that I want to check out, I’ll usually go to that. And I’ll usually tweet out to people “hey, I’m going here”. I’ll post that to my Facebook and I’ll usually be able to connect with a couple of people in the tech community that I’ve always wanted to see in that local area.
I’ll also do a company meetup, so if I’m flying to a city, I’ll use Intercom as a tool that allows you to message people based on a bunch of variables, some of those variables being your IP address. So I literally draw a circle around the city, that IP, and I message all those people saying “hey, I’m going to buy you a free drink if you just wanna come and hang out and chat about Time Doctor”.
And that’s usually more than enough for me to be able to stay there for months if you want to, because I’ve already built up a social net locally in that place, and I’ve also built a really focused work environment so I can do work, but then also just enjoy that environment.
Cristina: This is what I’ve talked about with many of my friends who are mostly freelancers, creatives and they have been slow travelling and they all feel the need to stay in one place for more than just a week. They need to create some sort of routine in the place where they are travelling and not just be on the streets all the time. I’ve noticed this pattern: they all mention booking Airbnb and how they are more productive this way.
Liam: For me, it’s definitely something that I’ve been doing for quite a while, and the hotel rooms… they just don’t work. They work for very short amounts of time, but particularly if you have a partner, you want to be able to make sure that you can have a separate workspace that is not that other person’s workspace. That’s what I focus on: get to that space as quickly as possible, whether that’s a coworking space or a second room in the Airbnb. Certainly an Airbnb is a lot cheaper than a coworking space.
I’m presupposing that if you’re listening to this podcast, you are associated with the tech community in some way. The tech community is usually very nice. You can just email people, saying “hey, I’m coming to Budapest, I would love to be able to check out the tech scene there”. Usually, you’ll end up getting a free spot to work. I’ve had that happen half the time that I just reached out to people. They said: “oh, would you like to work at the office for the next couple of weeks?” For sure, that’s even better.
I like, when I travel, I like to stay away from the tourist traps as much as possible and speak to real people. Getting inside of an office is probably one of the fastest ways to do that. So, for me, it’s a no-brainer.
Cristina: I love this as well and it’s why I prefer to stay in Airbnb, so that I can feel the local flavor better. The problem with working remotely, I don’t know if you have the same problem, but I certainly do: most people presume that it’s hard to stay away from distractions and for me, it’s actually the opposite. It’s hard for me to disconnect at the end of the day and to put work to a full stop. I just tend to work for 18 hours straight and forget to eat, forget to sleep, forget to exercise. Do you have this problem?
Liam: I don’t. Why do you have this problem?
Cristina: Good question. It’s probably because I really enjoy what I do and I’m an extremist. I don’t know, it’s just the way I’ve been working forever.
Liam: And do you feel like that’s something you want to change?
Cristina: I sometimes feel that I’m going to reach burnout if I don’t change and I’ll take some forced holidays or I’ll have to set some boundaries like “I’m going to work until 6 p.m. and then completely disconnect and set something else”, like sports or meetings or whatever.
Liam: I’m very disciplined with locking in my work time and my non-work time. My co-founder is more like you than like me. For example, my phone can’t accept emails past 9 p.m. So I just don’t get emails past 9 p.m. My social shuts down at 11. There’s just little scripts that you can download to shut down this kind of stuff off and that way, you’re forced to be alone with yourself.
Usually, my average day is: I get up around 9ish and I’ll roll into work around 10. We have a coworking space here that we run. Usually, I’ll show up there half the time. Some times, I’ll work from my home personal office. I’ll do the work that I wanna do, I usually work till about 6. Then, from there, I will go home, I’ll have dinner and hang out, listen to an audiobook, chat with people, maybe go out for a drink or something like that. Then, usually around 9 to 10 p.m. – I know that’s quite late – I’ll go to the gym. And for me, I find that exercising has the opposite effect for me: if I really exercise, I’ll be able to sleep better.
I go out, I go to the gym, and then just come back at around 11:30 and I’ll fall asleep and get at least 8 hours of sleep in. I think that’s really important for people to stay focused long term. You can pull capital out of your sleep bank from time to time, but if you do continuously have 5-hour nights – you know, there are all this people that say “Oh, I don’t really need more than 5 hours of sleep per night”, that’s just straight up wrong. There’s a lot of research to back it up. It’s really important that you get the right amount of sleep. So, I’ll get around 8-9 hours, get up the next morning and do it all again. That’s a pretty good life for me.
If I’m travelling, I’ll probably have 3-4 adjustment days. Especially if I’m travelling somewhere new, I will usually take one day and go and check out a whole bunch of neat stuff, to get that out of my system, and then I’ll replace the hanging out at home after dinner with going to dinner somewhere interesting and hanging around that new city.
That’s my rotation every day. If you can get into that type of rotation, I think you can be pretty sustainable. Sounds to me that if you’re going hardcore on this, you’ll have a crash eventually.
Cristina: Yeah, I agree. And I want to emphasize on what you said regarding sleep: I’ve also been missing sleep in my 20s and now that I’m in my 30s, I feel like sleep is my best productivity hack, so if I don’t get a good night sleep, anything I need to do the next day will take me probably 3x longer than it would have taken me if I had slept right.
Going back to when you co-founded Time Doctor, I was wondering: you were the first user, right? You first used it for yourself.
Liam: Yes, absolutely. Even until today, I’m currently tracking… I’m meeting with Cristina, I’ve been doing this task for 32 minutes and 11 seconds, and the majority of this time was spent on Skype, a little bit of that time I’ve spent on Gmail, and about 38 seconds on Facebook.
Cristina: How did you course-correct according to all these statistics? Did you cut your time from social media? Did you add to some other projects?
Liam: Sure. What’s interesting is that one of the first real insights that I got was this massive drop in productivity on Tuesday evenings. And I didn’t really understand why that was such a big drop in productivity. And then it was quite clear that I was getting distracted constantly in Tuesday evenings. But then I just sat through and studied my own Tuesdays self-referentially on a Tuesday afternoon, I recognized what was going on which is, I don’t know about where you currently are, but in Canada, on Tuesdays, they have cheap movie nights. Movies are half-priced on Tuesday and the calls would start on 2 in the afternoon, when my girlfriends would call and say:
“Hey, Are we going to see Superman or are we going to see Batman?”
and I say
“I wanna see Batman”
and she’s like
“I don’t wanna see Batman, I want to see Superman. Can you find out what times Superman is running?”
And then another call would come back say
“Hey, Suzanne wants to come and Cristina wants to come. Do you have Cristina’s phone number?”
“No. I don’t. Can you call her? Does everyone want to do the 7 o’clock show?”
“No, Cristina can’t make the 7 o’clock show, she wants to do the 9 o’clock show”
So it would just be this constant barrage of distraction, and the way I would solve it is I would just take Tuesday afternoons and evenings off and make it up in other places throughout the week.
I’m more productive, I’m happier, I’m able to watch all the movies I want. And the classic argument that you have to work from 9 to 5 I think is a broken premise. It generally makes people a lot less productive. If you can say “take Tuesday afternoon off, just leave the office at 2 p.m. and you can make that time somewhere else”, that’s going to give you a much more productive employee than if you force them to work through that Tuesday afternoon because they’re not going to be productive in the first place.
So that was the major insight, but there’s a bunch more that I collected in analyzing what I’m currently doing with my time.
The biggest thing for people is: if you’re interested in analyzing what is going on with your work day, you can just try out a trial at Time Doctor. There’s a free 14-day trial and that’s kind of the best way to audit your time and see “OK, what am I currently doing with my time and where is it going?”
Cristina: I used to have this problem a few years ago when I was wasting so much time on Facebook. I had no idea where it was going and after starting to track this time, I realised I was spending 1 hour per day on Facebook. I was saying to myself “it’s work, it’s something I need to do”. Wen you add it up, that means two weeks out of the whole year so that’s a lot.
Liam: And what did you do? Did you take any direct action? What changes did you make?
Cristina: At first, I removed it from my mobile phone, uninstalled it. I blocked it on my desktop to only 10 minutes per day. And eventually, in December last year, I completely shut down my account, my personal account. I said “OK, let’s see what it looks like for one week without Facebook at all” and that one week experiment turned into the best decision I’ve made, so far, for my productivity. And it all started from that simple fact, that I noticed how much time I was wasting.
Liam: Wow! That’s a very bold move. Especially for someone in the industry that you’re in, that’s very interesting. I’ve constantly thought about that. I have a friend of mine, Cal, who writes a lot of things, he has a blog about study hacking, and he wrote a book recently on “Deep Work”…
Cristina: Haha, Cal Newport is your friend…?
Liam: Yeah. I mean, I’ve done a couple of talks with him before. So that’s something that he’s been talking about for a long time and I’ve always appreciated his discipline as it connects to tasks and I just don’t have that same level of discipline.
I don’t know whether I can get rid of my Facebook. I would say, at a certain level, I’m chemically dependent upon it. Even if it’s just psychological dependence, it’s still chemical because you get a chemical reaction from someone liking your posts or someone interacting with you. I actually believe that Facebook is one of the best drug dealers on planet Earth, because they’ve been able to give you the best drug of all, which is feeling important, feeling like people care about you or interact with you.
And those psychological targets… I’m going to take a big left turn – years and years ago I started researching p*rnography and, more specifically, I had a friend of mine that was studying pronography and he was doing his PhD on it. And he recognised that pornography, done from the point of view of a man, is chemically indifferent from the actual act of sex itself. So you’re creating a situation where, much like with pornography, unlike the real world – where you’re very lucky if you do everything right, you might be able to sleep with one woman, one time and be very lucky that you did it. With pronography, you can get that same chemical reaction 30 or 40 times within a day if you want to.
Cristina: Just out of our brains.
Liam: It’s the same chemical reward. That creates a really bad problem. This is something that he’s mentioned, that I think it’s something really powerful to be able to knock home for people, is: if you’re getting chemical reactions that are the same deep intimate relationships or friendship or whatever it might be, the sociological implications of that are huge. We don’t know what’s going to be happening in the next 10 to 15 years as it applies to human interaction.
You look at apps like Tinder right now. Tinder has been huge for the casual sex for millennials. I’m pretty sure for older groups as well, but I just want to focus on millennials. I don’t use any of those apps, because I’ve had a long-term relationship with my girlfriend for over 6 years, but I have friends of mine that are able to open up an app and get a date and probably also get sex with a woman in an evening. Very quick and easily. And that has long-term implication that we need to able to take a look at.
So I think that all of these things like Facebook, Tinder, easy access to p*rn, all this kind of stuff, I call this concept “the distraction economy”. I believe that the most successful businesses today are the ones that are the best at distracting you from what you want to do.
So I want to create a blog post. However, there’s Twitter and Tinder and Facebook and YouTube that are distracting me from accomplishing my goal. And the better they can distract me, the more money they make for themselves and the less focused I become and the less money I make. So, Time Doctor is a tool that can counteract that. As an example: if I went to Facebook right now, I would get a pop-up saying “Are you still working on podcast?”, because we want to be able to give people that moment to understand when they’re getting distracted and pull them into a much more productive state of work.
Cristina: OK. A lot there to think about. First of all, since you mentioned Cal Newport: his book and what he wrote in it was one of the main reasons why I shut down my Facebook account. I actually read it three times last year because it was something I really needed and it helped me a lot. I am an introvert and I was using Facebook instead of real interactions with people so I was under the illusion that I know what those people I admire are doing. I was under the illusion that I interact with them and I wasn’t. Those were people that I wasn’t meeting in real life anymore and I had no idea what they were actually going through. So that changed a lot, I started picking up my phone and calling them and asking to meet in real life. Lots of magic ideas were born from those real-life interactions. So I think virtual interactions are helping us, but they cannot substitute completely real life interactions. You still need those.
Liam: Pandora’s box is open. Again, if it is a chemical reaction that is indistinguishable from the real thing, and it’s much easier for me to do stuff online because I can get more of those chemical rewards than in the real world, then we’ve got a problem, because your medulla oblongata, the base part of your identity, really wants those things. That’s its job: to go and get those things. We’ve set up these chemical rewards in our minds to maximise for those types of activities.
Access to sugar today is 1000 times easier than it was 100 years ago. So that’s why people are really fat: they eat a lot of sugar. But of course you want to eat sugar: it’s one of the most energy-dense foods that you can get your hands on. Give a sugar cube to a toddler. It’s great to be able to get energy, but the reason why our bodies have set that up is because in the wild we never would have had access to that amount of sugar, and the body says “we want to highly reward type of activity”. Because it’s quite rare and it’s good for us in small amounts. But not if you have a bunch of Jujus, If you sit through a $5 bag of Jujus and now you’ve got more sugar in your body that the average human would get in an entire month in one sitting. It’s a big problem, Same thing with pornography, same thing with social media. I don’t know how we’re going to get through that, to be honest with you.
This has become quite self-referential in my opinion, but I believe that we are at a very interesting stage in our lives, where people that can fight those temptations will, in essence, be more disciplined, will probably succeed in society and those that cannot, those that just enter the Matrix… I just got an Oculus Go, that is a $200 headset run by Oculus and Facebook that allows me to interact in the virtual world. It’s a completely different interface to be able to make this process even deeper. So these companies are spending trillions of dollars trying to distract you, and if they succeed in their mission, think you’re not going to make that much money or you’re not going to achieve your goals, whatever that is. I shouldn’t just focus on money, I should focus on just achieving your goals, whatever that might be. They are there to stop you from achieving your goals. Just don’t believe that they’re not.
Cristina: And we would probably do the same if we were in their place. I mean, everyone is fighting for everyone’s attention. All the time.
Liam: I want more attention. That’s my motto. That’s why I did 100 podcasts in the last 4 months. I want attention and I want people to be able to come to our conference. Because I have a mission, I want to empower remote teams to work better together. So we feel like the conference is a component of that. But also it’s connected to a whole bunch of other aspects. I want to make sure the company still makes money. I want to be able to still employ everybody inside of our business. So I’m going to use whatever tools at my disposal to be able to achieve that goal. And that’s market capitalism. That’s the open market. That’s the ability to do pretty much whatever you want to do to become the dominant force in the market.
However, that said, with the addition technology – and technology is moving at a pace that people can’t understand, because it’s very difficult for people to understand exponential growth. If I gave you a penny today, and I gave you two pennies tomorrow, and I gave you 4 pennies the day after that, and I double the pennies every single day, you have a million dollars I believe on… day 28? People don’t understand exponential growth. If you’d ask anybody “give me $10000 today or give me a penny today and double it every day”, many people would just take the linear calculation, because they can’t understand exponential calculations.
So, technology is moving so quickly now that within the next 5 years, we’re not going to know what the heck is going on. 10 years ago, smartphones didn’t exist. Now they’re in everyone’s hand on planet Earth. And Facebook and YouTube and Twitter and Instagram have been able to get themselves hardwired into your brain. Like literally into your hand. Right now, phones are an extension of who you are.
So, I’m very concerned about the future, to be honest with you. I don’t know what will happen, but I do know that I’m going to continue to play the way that the game is played and with the understanding that – and I think this is probably bad for society in general – but I don’t know how to get out of that feedback loop.
It’s a very difficult question to answer and I don’t have an answer for it. I don’t even know if I truly understand the question all that well. It’s a very interesting time right now, where we have these massive distractions that are taking away hours and hours and hours a day from our lives and we should be focused, we should be doing deep work, like Cal says, but we’re not. Why is that? You can point squarely at social media and the distraction economy for doing that.
Cristina: I was reading a study the other day and it said that the mere presence of smartphones in the same room with us, even when they’re turned off (so no notifications), it still affects our ability to think and learn. We are always fighting this will to take it into our hands and look at it, so it’s probably easier for us to remove the distractions from the environment all together. As with sugar: as nutrition coaches say that it’s best if we remove the sugar and junk food sources from the house if we want to eat healthier. So not just focus on the power of our will, because we will deplete that from early in the day, and instead of focusing on the important decisions we have to make, we will use that will to stay away from our phone and stay away from those distractions.
Liam: Yeah. Even though I just went on that rant for a little bit there, right after you started speaking, I picked up my phone and got distracted. I’m addicted! That is the reality: I have an addiction.
Cristina: It’s the first step: to recognise the addiction is the most important one. Most people don’t even recognise this. They aren’t aware that it’s an addiction.
Liam: Sure. I agree with you. However, with that said, I would love to be able to control technology and not let technology control me. There are lots of things I want to do today. I know I will be distracted by social media for some of them. And it’s just one of these difficult problems to solve. We’re very passionate about it. We’ve build a tool to be able to try to stop some of the things from happening. Even if you know – it’s so frustrating that I know I’m addicted – but yet, I still picked up my damn phone.
Cristina: Perhaps we should just incorporate this in our lives and accept that we are human and set time for social media and all those.
Liam: Exactly. I actually think at the end of the day, what you did, Cristina, is the way to do it. Even I was thinking of delegating my social media accounts to my assistant, so I don’t even have access to it. It’s still a portal to interact with me, but it’s through that barrier, so I cannot directly get that feedback loop. Yeah, I’ve got to keep experimenting with it. I wish I had an answer but basically I still think I’m gonna be addicted in 6 months from now.
Cristina: Well, it’s not something you need to do forever. You can still do an experiment for one week. I actually started with a one week experiment and it turned into this 6 months period.
Liam: I’m definitely trying to look at that and seeing how I can work myself out of the problem. It might be an interesting question for you. Business is done through Facebook. There’s a lot of people that I interact with. I spoke to Cal about 6 months ago and I think I got in touch with him through Facebook Messenger because I had someone that wanted to speak with him or something like that. So, it’s kind of a touchpoint for me so I don’t know how I can actually completely abandon it. But maybe doing that one week experiment, maybe you’re right, maybe I won’t have those same type of problems. Maybe those are kinda made up in my head or maybe it’s just something that I’m thinking is very difficult because my addiction wants to create those types of excuses.
Cristina: Yeah, and because we want to feed our egos, after all. I’m still struggling with this: with the fear that everyone will forget about me and forget about what I’m doing. It’s a daily struggle still.
Liam: It’s definitely something that’s really important for me as well, to understand where that sits, Yeah, you’ve given me a lot to talk about. Are we still in the podcast? This is getting much self-referential at this point. It’s definitely something that I think about quite a bit and maybe I will try that experiment. I’ll just shut it down for a week and see what happens.
Cristina: Lots of food for thought for you and our listeners as well. I’m going to jump to a different subject now. You talked about your hiring process in another interview you did and I’d like to ask you about the common personality traits that you are looking for in the persons you are hiring. You mentioned that you noticed how most of them are introverts or introverts fit best your culture, so that’s why I’m asking you this.
Liam: Sure, yeah. That’s true. So we usually optimise for introverted individuals, simply because they need less social interaction than people that are extroverts. We hire for that. We also hire for different personality traits when we’re looking at different teams. I’m kind of a starter, realistically. I’m really good at starting an idea, but I’m not very good at finishing it, so I usually surround myself with people that are finishers. In other words, project managers.
I’m not very good at managing a project, but I am pretty good at looking at the market, gaining the insights from the market and coming up with the plan, but I’m pretty bad at executing on that plan. So that’s an example: we kind of assemble those different teams, we put them together, to be able to make sure that we have a good mix of those people.
That was something I had real trouble with at the beginning because I felt bad that I was just coming up with ideas and delegating them to other team-members to do. But I realised that to be able to have a team to work together, you need to have somebody who has the idea and you need to have somebody who’s able to actually execute on those ideas. So, understanding those different mixes is really important.
Cristina: And how they should complete each-other. Any other skills that are needed for someone to work remotely?
Liam: Ability to work independently is really important. The ability to interact with people virtually and be comfortable with that is really important. The biggest thing I see is: we always hire people that don’t always ask us what to do, they tell us what they did, and that’s really important for remote work.
Cristina: I love this.
Liam: I don’t want anybody that’s saying “what should we do?”, I want someone saying “I did this, do you think that it’s a good idea?”. As long as they have that, they’re pretty good when it comes to remote work.
Cristina: Can these traits be learned after a certain age? After 20 years of working in a “normal” office?
Liam: Yes, I believe it can. Specifically, GitHub, who is going to be speaking at Running Remote is going to talk about how they’ve reprogrammed on-site workers for remote work because they’re moving their entire company remote. All 890 employees. That’s going to be a very interesting transfer. It’s cost them a lot of money to be able to do it, but they do recognise that it’s the best business model for them. It’s very interesting how that’s going to go and I’m very interested in listening to that talk. To me, that’s going to be huge, in terms of just understanding how larger companies are really trying to take advantage of the remote work movement.
Cristina: Definitely. I’m curious to know: how do you know when a team-member has personal problems or is in a bad mood? If you never really spend time with them outside of virtual work, how do you know when something bad is happening in their personal life?
Liam: That is something that we use Time Doctor to a degree as an early warning system. Connected to that, we had a customer who started detecting World of Warcraft on a developer’s work computer that was working remotely. And instead of firing that person, he asked “Why are you spending time on World of Warcraft?”. WoW is a big online video game where you interact with different people, where you go on missions. It’s like a fantasy game. And he said “Well, I work for 8 hours for you and then I do World of Warcraft for 12-13 hours a day”. And the manager said “Is this a problem for you?” and he said “Yeah, I’m addicted”. Instead of firing that person, he got him therapy and within 6 months, he had a DSM approved video-game addiction, and he deleted his character, and now he is one of the most successful developers in the company yet again. So, by being able to analyze those early warning systems has been huge for understanding where people are going psychologically.
With that said, we usually check in with people once a year face-to-face. It’s quite useful if you can afford it, to have a face-to-face meeting once a year. This year, before we have our conference at Running Remote, we’re going to be doing our own personal team retreat in Ubud, Bali. So we’re flying 80+ people from all over the planet to Ubud, Bali for the meeting and meeting them in person is going to give you a completely different context.
But, more importantly than that, just general interaction, talking to them about things that don’t relate to work… we have an app that was built by one of our previous employees. Basically, what it does, it randomly matches two people on Slack every week to be able to have a coffee day. It’s a virtual coffee day. It can be in person, but we use it virtually. You are supposed to talk about anything and everything except work. Where are you from, what are you doing? Oh, you’re from Romania? What do you do in Romania? What’s the country like? All those types of things. Versus talking about work which can be a big black hole.
Those are the three major things that we do: we meet with people in person, we do coffee dates and we also use the app to make sure we’re analyzing how people are doing and whether they’re really being successful and touching base with them very early on that, to be able to – hopefully – get them back from going down a road that would not be very productive road.
Cristina: Yes. Because mental health is really important and it’s hard when you are working remote and dealing with loneliness. Ok, you’re still an introvert, but you do need to socialize from time to time. After all, we are all social animals. I only have two more questions. First of all, assuming that it doesn’t work and you need to fire someone, what are the most common reasons for firing remote workers?
Liam: There’s actually four major categories that I put people into:
- Category 1: Someone is connected positively to our culture, so they’ve got the right culture fit and they’re doing really well in their position. Those are the people that you keep and you give them more responsibility.
- 2: People who meet our culture but are not executing inside their position. Those people you try to move to another position.
- 3: People that are not very successful in their position and are not meeting and connecting with our culture. That’s an easy decision, you just get those people out of the company as quickly as possible.
- And the fourth, which is the very difficult category, it’s people that are doing very well in their position, but they don’t meet our culture. Those people are usually cultural-cancer inside of the business. You need to get them out. It’s very difficult to get them out, because you think to yourself “they’re doing really well, I should continue to hire them” but, in reality, it’s a very bad spot to be in.
So I break them down in these 4 categories. Every year we literally break down every employee into those four separate categories and then we just figure out: Ok, what do we need to do next? Where do we need to go with all of those people inside of the organisation?
And it usually comes down to: they’re not meeting their KPIs, they don’t have the right tools at their disposal, or they weren’t the right person for the job in the first place.
So one of them is the manager’s problem, and the other one is HR’s problem, the recruiter’s problem. It’s very simple for us to break that down. And as long as you’re disciplined about re-analyzing everybody every year at least, you’ll be fine in terms of hiring. You just need to be able to continue to analyze it and don’t let those things get away from you.
Cristina: Very interesting insights. My last question: are there any books that you’d recommend for any future entrepreneurs who want to build a remote team?
Liam: I don’t think there’s much out there, to be honest with you. It’s very difficult to be able to suggest to you a fantastic book. One that you can just get introduced to is the one by Basecamp and it’s a very good basic introduction to remote work. I can’t remember the name of the book right now. Have you read that book by any chance?
Cristina: Yes, I did. “Remote – Office Not Required” by DHH and Jason Fried.
Liam: Yes. If you’ve never done remote work before, that’s a great one to get you started. If you already have a remote business, it’s probably going to be a lot of rear view, in my opinion. To be honest, the reason why we’re building the conference is that we haven’t found many resources for remote work. I actually don’t think a lot of this stuff is written down anywhere. That’s why we’re building that conference, to build that out.
But, in general, I think that if you’re building a technology company remotely, and I think most businesses right now that are remote – the biggest component that are completely remote are usually technology companies – Eric Ries’ “Lean Startup” is great if you want to be able to work on for execution.
For theory, I would read “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel, which will give you the grand architecture – if you don’t have a company yet but you have an idea, “Zero to One” will really try to get your idea much more focused then where it is right now. It’s a great way of understanding whether your idea is a billion dollar idea or whether it’s a million dollar idea. Both can be built into businesses, but you need to be able to figure out which camp you’re in you’re in and what you want to be able to build, so if you have a million dollar idea and you think it’s a billion dollar idea and you execute on it, it’s really bad news for you because you’re going to be committing the next 5 years of your life to something that’s probably not going to be able to be a billion dollar business. Peter Thiel kind of solves that problem.
Cristina: They both kind of teach you what questions to ask yourself, not to lie to yourself. Great recommendations! For everyone who’s reading: Running Remote conference, Ubud, Bali, in June this year, 23rd and 24th. I’m sorry I won’t be there, I would if I could but I recommend it. I looked over the speaker’s list and we also interviewed a few of them for The CEO Library and it’s definitely going to be great and filled with valuable insights for anyone. Thank you, Liam! Where can people reach out to you?
Liam: You can… not grab me on Facebook. I deleted my Facebook at this point. You can grab me on Instagram. Type “Liam Martin Instagram” and you’re probably going to find me. That’s a good spot to find me, because I’m very interested in Instagram and I’m trying to study how it works. I’ve thrown a couple of photos up there and I’m very interested in building it out, so if anyone would like to interact with me, I’m very happy to exchange some DMs with you as much as possible, because I’m trying to understand it. If anyone wants to teach me Instagram, grab me on Instagram. I’d love to be able to get a free lesson.
Cristina: And it’s a more positive network, after all. Awesome! Thank you so much!
Liam: Thank you!
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