Be a Project Manager: Our System for Hiring and Managing Remote Teams

Be a Project Manager: Our System for Hiring and Managing Remote Teams

I get it. Everyone wants to make a quick buck.

And we’ve been pretty successful since launching Hubstaff in 2012. So I guess I’m not surprised when folks ask me:

“What’s the big secret?”

It’s funny but people sometimes act sort of disappointed when I answer this question. Maybe because it doesn’t sound like a lot of what you hear at those thousand dollar conferences. It doesn’t involve any fancy marketing jargon, either. It’s pretty simple, actually.

Ready for it?

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The secret to our success

Hubstaff is 100% remote.

There it is. The big secret. The thing that more than anything else, has helped us build a million-dollar business from scratch in just a few years. It’s not just about making money, but also about saving it and operating lean.

We’ve got 25 employees spread across nine countries in who knows how many time zones (it’s a lot).

I’m not going to tell you it’s always easy, but I’ll be honest:

Being 100% remote is Hubstaff’s biggest competitive advantage.

It’s pretty simple. Working remotely allows us to hire the best talent available. If the best developer happens to live in Denmark, or the Philippines, or New Zealand, or wherever… doesn’t matter. I’ll hire anyone, anywhere, so long as they make the cut. Even our version of the “C-Suite” — me (CMO) and my co-founder, Jared (CTO) — works remotely. There’s no “corner office” at Hubstaff HQ. There actually isn’t a “Hubstaff HQ” at all, unless you count our Slack channel.

Of course, there are a TON of other benefits of working remotely (flexibility and work-life balance are two big ones), but for us, it’s all about finding the best talent.

“Being 100% remote is Hubstaff’s biggest competitive advantage” Click To Tweet

In a certain way, building a remote team was the only option for Hubstaff. After all, if we didn’t work remotely ourselves, how in the hell could we pitch software for remote teams with a straight face? So yeah, it’s part of our brand narrative… but it’s also way more than that. It’s the fuel behind our innovation, and it’s a big part of what’s allowed us to scale the way we have.

How to hire a remote team

In this post, I want to walk you step-by-step through my process for building a remote team.

Be a project manager

People have this glamorous idea of what it’s like running a remote company. You call the shots. You choose your meetings. You hire, you fire. Oh, and you can grab lunch or hit the golf course whenever and wherever you want.

I guess all that is true, but it’s a little more complicated than that. The truth is, if you’re running a remote team like ours, your day-to-day is all about air traffic control. My co-founder Jared and I are project managers more than anything else. Sure, we have small projects that force us to be “doers,” but for the most part we rely on our teams to do the work, and our own work is to review the projects. There are a lot of projects that come out, so it’s more than a full-time job, but it’s the only way we’ve found we can actually scale.

If you want to build a remote team, you need to be a project manager above everything else Click To Tweet

Focus on what works

If you’re going to build and scale a remote business, you’ve got to stop doing things because you “think” they need to get done, or because everyone else seems to be doing them. Cut it out. Do things that are proven to work for you.

Here’s just a small sample of things that have produced zero results for us:

  • Cold outreach emails
  • Facebook advertising
  • Twitter advertising

We still do these things in small doses, but they’re not relied on. Instead, we double down on what’s driving results. For Hubstaff, a few examples of this are investing in the product, improving our free trial, and making it easier to share and spread the word virally. We’ve also found success in longer articles like this one.

Structure your team

Operating your business remotely is no excuse to do without a proper team structure. Whether you do this by skill, channel, personality, or something else… doesn’t matter. A remote team is no different from an on-site team in this sense. You have to organize the chaos somehow.

At Hubstaff, we structure our remote team by channel — based on what’s producing results:

how we structure our remote team by channel

As the CMO, I manage each channel, but most of my time is spent reviewing, not “doing.” Remember, I’m a project manager above all else.

To make things easier, each channel has an owner responsible for its success. This has allowed us to work more efficiently. It’s far easier to hand over responsibility for our ad campaigns to an expert in PPC, for instance, than it is for me to spend time managing that channel myself. Instead of wading knee-deep into CTR, CPC and the technical ins and outs of online advertising, I focus on making sure the projects move forward.

Not only does this structure keep us organized, but it also gives our employees ownership and a sense of teamwork that’s sometimes hard to achieve among remote workers.

Scale slowly

At any time, I’ve got two, three, maybe four or five positions open at Hubstaff. But rather than fill multiple openings at once, we hire one person at a time — even if it means we aren’t scaling as fast as we possibly could. The advantage here is that it forces you to get ROI from every employee and evaluate results. Anytime we take on a new employee, we set it up as a trial (more on that in a minute). If I can attribute positive ROI to that new hire within a few weeks’ time, we make it permanent. Simple as that.

Invest the time

On average I spend about 25 hours on a new hire. I manage the entire process with our own project management software (we’re still building this internally) and move people between categories based on where they’re at in the process.

how much time should i spend with a new hire

I ask the same questions of every candidate:

  • We need to see a LinkedIn profile and resume
  • References we can speak with
  • Can you send me any marketing references?
  • Could you work until around 1pm EST so there’s some overlap?
  • We work as a team and are available via group chat while working. All major decisions and features are discussed prior to code being written. It is important to have worked in a team-based setting before and being open to discussion and debate. Is this OK?
  • Each team member uses Hubstaff to track their time and sends a status update via email at the end of each day. Is this OK?
  • Will this be the only project you’re working on?

Automate the process

Investing enough time in each hire doesn’t mean you should spend more than you have to. So I automate the process as best I can. I use a form created in Google Forms to ask these questions and set it up so I’m notified when it’s submitted.

Here’s the form I use:

application for marketing generalist position - example

And here are the results:

application for marketing specialist responses - examples

I do this for two reasons:

  1. I don’t want to hire someone that won’t do the work to fill out a form first
  2. I don’t want to deal with all of these in real time

Finding candidates

We don’t do “spray and pray” at Hubstaff — not for marketing, and definitely not when looking for candidates. I’ve found the most success with three sources:

1. AngelList — This is basically the LinkedIn of the startup world. It allows startups to post jobs using a number of helpful filters, including “Remote Work OK”

angel list

2. WeWorkRemotely — We’ve found a ton of success posting job openings here. Here’s a look at my inbox after posting a support position on the site:

we work remotely

3. LinkedIn — A LinkedIn Premium account allows us to search for candidates outside my individual network and message them with opportunities. Check out my blog post “Virtual Employees: How to Find and Hire the Best” for more detail.

LinkedIn

What we look for

There are more than 7 billion people on this earth. So when you’re building a remote team, lack of available talent is a piss poor excuse for anything. At Hubstaff, I get a lot of applications from a lot of super talented people. But I don’t just want button pushers. I’m looking for folks with some personality, who are doers, that actually take initiative and show some serious hustle. This is demonstrated not just through work examples and references (those are important, too), but also through every single interaction during the interview process — every email and every Skype call.

Above all else, I want proof someone knows how to:

  • Get shit done (they should have a portfolio or work that speaks for itself)

and

  • Make things easier for the business (they shouldn’t waste my time)

Narrowing down to favorites

I really can’t stress it enough. A lot of folks are qualified on paper, but when I’m trying to narrow the field, the way a candidate communicates makes all the difference.

Someone can impress me with a single email. I don’t need (or want) a novel. I just want a timely response with everything I need to make a decision in one place.

Here’s an example of a good initial contact email:

example of a good initial contact email

This email takes <2 minutes to read and tells me everything I need to know. Boom. No bullshit, plus a bonus: he makes it clear he has experience working remotely.

And here’s an example of a really bad initial contact email:

example of a really bad initial contact email

Just, wow. Wish I could tell you this thing isn’t real.

A few things I hate:

  • When someone tries to set up a time to “chat” (be specific, damnit!)
  • When someone won’t give me a rate they’re looking for
  • When someone replies back with 20 questions

Hire on a trial

Some things you can just jump right into. Swimming pools. Trampolines. Your bed.

Hiring a full-time employee is not one of those things.

I mentioned this a little bit earlier. Anytime I’m hiring a full-time employee, I ask them to work with us for four weeks so that both sides can make an informed decision. This “trial” can be done on a part-time basis. Two huge benefits to this:

  1. You only hire folks based on actual ROI, not (possibly false) inclination
  2. Someone doesn’t just quit their job and leave me feeling like I have to bring them on

Hiring on a trial also gives you an opportunity to gauge intangibles like personality and cultural fit, which can be really difficult to determine from a few emails and a Skype call alone.

Why all this matters

Hiring the right employees is critical to any business, but the stakes are even higher when you’re building a remote team. When it comes to managing virtual employees, you need to be a project manager, not a babysitter. So do yourself a favor, follow the process I’ve outlined, and get out of the babysitting business.

And please let me know how it goes – in the comments below.

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