Virtual Companies: How and Why to Invest in Remote Teams

Virtual companies all over the world are thriving on the remote business model. There are many reasons this model is so successful, from the high engagement levels of virtual teams to the availability of kick-ass employee monitoring tools.

We’ve compiled a list of the best virtual companies that operate globally so you can see how they did it and the keys to their success. Here you will find stories about everything from managing remote teams to communicating with suppliers online. Expand and read the stories of successful virtual companies and their remote teams below.

1. Zapier

Communication has to be much more deliberate. -@Wadefoster, founder of @Zapier Click To Tweet

Founders: Bryan Helmig @bryanhelmig and Wade Foster @wadefoster

The Company

Zapier allows you to connect your web apps in order to easily move your data and simplify tedious tasks. Once you connect your apps, you can automate actions in order to streamline your communications. When an event happens in one of your apps, Zapier will take note and automatically perform your desired task in another connected app. All you have to do is create a Zap by choosing a trigger and an action. One example is “when I receive a new email in Gmail, send me an SMS message.” Zapier will do the rest. You can monitor your activity, manage connected apps, and turn Zaps on and off from your Zapier dashboard.

The Virtual Teams

Zapier is a distributed team with team members working all around the world. Their Co-Founder Wade Foster says that the biggest rewards for remote teams are that “employees can set their own hours and live near their families,” and “the business gets access to these really smart people.” In addition to those benefits, Foster also notes the financial savings on office space and the increased productivity because team members are free to choose their best suited work environment.

Working with remote teams doesn’t come without challenges, however. Foster notes that “communication has to be much more deliberate” and it’s hard to brainstorm and form personal bonds virtually.

Learn more about how Zapier builds a successful company on remote work by reading their book, The Ultimate Guide to Remote Work. You can read the chapters online or download the eBook for free when you subscribe to their blog.

The Tools They Use

Slack, Hackpad, Trello*, GoToMeeting

2. Fire Engine RED

We're free to tap into top talent all across North America. -Shelly Spiegel of @185red on remote teams Click To Tweet

Founders: Shelly Spiegel and Rene Smith

The Company

Fire Engine RED provides innovative marketing, technology and data solutions for the education market. They combine data-driven strategies with effective design, specializing in student search, CRM, big data and software. Their student search tools, such as responsive email messages and web forms, are well-suited to the mobile devices that teens use. Their Fireworks CRM was built for admissions professionals and enables them to organize and import admissions-related data efficiently. Their data services include predictive modeling, list purchasing and persona identification. Fire Engine RED also offers software solutions with a seamless user experience to customize application procedures, broadcast emails, chat with prospective and current students, manage events, create forms and more.

The Virtual Teams

Fire Engine RED is 100% virtual, with a remote team working from more than 20 states across the U.S. and Canada. More than one-third of the Fire Engine RED team has also worked in admissions, allowing them to build and refine their products and services from an admissions perspective.

According to Co-Founder Shelly Spiegel, one of the greatest benefits of having a virtual team is the ability to “hire the very best person for any job opening, without having to consider where they live.”

“Because we’re not tied to a specific physical location, we’re free to tap into top talent all across North America (and beyond).” – Shelly Spiegel

Spiegel also notes that employees benefit from working remotely because it removes the distractions of a centralized office and eliminates stress involved with commuting. Although virtual teams don’t get the visual, non-verbal cues that come from working in an office, the Fire Engine RED team relies on collaborative software to ensure clear communication and achieve great success.

Some of the successes that Fire Engine RED has accomplished with a completely virtual workforce include exceptional results in student search and an earned reputation as the best in their industry. Their CRM team is also making excellent progress in introducing well-designed, people-focused technology to the admissions and education market.

Read more about their virtual workforce at Where Virtual is the Best Policy on INC.

The Tools They Use

Skype for audio-only calls and meetings, UberConference/Free Conference for larger gatherings, Google Docs to collaborate and Trillian for instant messaging. Their team uses Yammer, an internal social network where team members share industry news, software tips, and just-for-fun updates. They also use activeCollab*, Basecamp*, and JIRA*.

3. Hubstaff

We are not constrained by geographical boundaries. -@dnevogt on the business benefits of remote work Click To Tweet

Founders: Dave Nevogt @dnevogt and Jared Brown @jaredbrown

The Company

Hubstaff provides time tracking and work monitoring software that helps remote teams operate efficiently. Their lightweight desktop app has a built in timer used to record time to specific projects and tasks, and takes randomized screenshots while the timer is running. Hubstaff records activity levels based on keystrokes and mouse movements, so you can gauge how productive an employee is while logging time. The app tracks URLs and application usage to create a truly transparent approach to remote work.

Hubstaff also works offline. Once a timer is started, the app will begin tracking time and operating as normal. All screenshots, activity levels, and URL and app information will be uploaded once the user reconnects to the Internet.

With automatic payment options and multiple project management software integrations, Hubstaff provides a start-to-finish solution for managing remote employees. In fact, all the tools mentioned in this post with an asterisk (*) beside them can be integrated with Hubstaff for easy time tracking. Hubstaff’s innovative software is used by more than 8,000 successful virtual companies all over the world.

Track Virtual Time and Projects with Hubstaff

Hubstaff is Free for 14 Days

The Virtual Teams

Hubstaff’s global team hails from all around the world, with no physical office space or long commutes. They operate completely online with virtual collaboration tools and their time tracker. According to Co-Founder Dave Nevogt, the biggest benefits of virtual companies are employee (and employer) freedom and the ability to hire globally. Hiring virtual employees from around the world has helped Hubstaff control hourly rates and find talent more easily. Nevogt also notes that it’s easier to hire contractors instead of full-time employees, since tasks can be assigned and and completed whenever the contractor has time and there doesn’t have to be a large commitment to or from the company.

Although the virtual teams at Hubstaff enjoy the freedom to set their own schedules, Nevogt says that it’s harder to know your team and build a sense of loyalty in a remote environment.

Download free resources for managing remote teams at Hubstaff University.

The Tools They Use

Hubstaff, Google Docs, Trello*, Pivotal Tracker*, Skype, DropBox

Get Productivity Insights with Accurate Time Tracking

Hubstaff is Free for 14 Days

4. 10up

It's not a piece of software, but excellent communication and great team leaders. -@jakemgold Click To Tweet

Founder: Jake Goldman @jakemgold

The Company

10up makes content management simple with web design, development and consulting services. They engineer tools that solve problems and help make content organization and sharing easy. Their projects include responsive websites, premiere mobile apps and WordPress plugins. One of their projects, the Simple Page Ordering plugin, makes it easy and intuitive to order and re-order your WordPress web pages.

10up strategizes to what you and your company needs (a responsive website? a better way to maximize ad revenue?), crafts designs that form relationships with your target audience, and creates what you need with a team of skilled programmers and engineers from around the world.

The Virtual Teams

The 10up team consists of leaders, strategists, designers and engineers from the United States, Canada, Europe and India. They operate virtually in most major cities and everywhere in between. 10up builds their virtual company without boundaries, stating that talent isn’t limited to zipcodes. Although they have a small space in Portland, Oregon, their distributed team has the freedom to set their own schedule and work where they’re most inspired.

10up Founder Jake Goldman states that the successes of his company derive from their value and attention in training, mentorship, talent and the way they serve their clients. Goldman states that having a remote team allows even a small scale business to have a meaningful presence in other countries due to the distribution of team members. 10up has a presence in meet ups, conferences and communities around the world thanks to their virtual employees, who also enable multiple in-person touch points no matter where a client is. Many of their account managers and senior leadership live in major cities around the United States, they are able to make in-person visits when needed, which gives a big edge.

“Embracing a full distributed (remote) team has enabled 10up to hire the very best and brightest within a very niche set of skills at a relatively rapid pace; there’s no way that 10up could have scaled the agency model to our current height (~110 full time staff) within 4 years while maintaining our premium level of service and staying competitive on the pricing side without the talent marketplace that remote work offers.” – Jake Goldman

The rewards of a distributed team doesn’t come without challenges. An issue that virtual companies may run into is a lack of empathy, since emotive and subtle communication are often lost in emails or discussion threads. Goldman states that it’s still easier to brainstorm in person, and some employees benefit from the buzz of the workplace. He also notes that in his personal experience, employee retention is much harder in a virtual company due to the lack of physical space where employees can meet up with friendly colleagues and form office habits and rituals. Virtual companies must overcompensate to be competitive in retaining their top remote workers.

Despite those concerns, 10up has been able to access an incredibly broad labor pool and achieve brand presence around the world. Their employees also benefit for various reasons. 10up’s remote teams don’t have a work commute (unless they want one), they enjoy flexible hours and more time with family, and some may have found career opportunities that do not exist where they want to live. Other employees may be introverted, even if they are good communicators, and work more productively online than in a traditional office.

Read more about the benefits and challenges of distributed and centralized teams at Speaking of Hub and Spoke on Jake Goldman’s blog.

The Tools They Use

HipChat as the “office,” Zoom for video chat and screen sharing, InVision for collaborating on visual assets like storyboards, Google apps for its synchronous document collaboration.

5. Help Scout

Deal with any remote challenges head on and...do great things in spite of them. -@nickfrancis Click To Tweet

Founders: Nick Francis @nickfrancis, Denny Swindle @dennyswindle and Jared McDaniel @jaredmcdaniel

The Company

Help Scout is a popular web-based help desk that allows your customer support teams to address concerns and answer questions quickly and efficiently. The software is designed to blend into your own company brand, and is completely invisible to customers. They also offer unlimited email inboxes so you can manage emails for multiple brands, insightful reports on both customer happiness and team productivity, and an integrated knowledge base so your customers can help themselves.

The Help Scout help desk allows you to determine automated actions (if/then commands), send bulk replies and create custom views so you can navigate to the exact information you want. Keep every member of your virtual customer support team on the same page with tags, private team notes, and saved replies to common questions. Users can also view the relationship history of every individual customer, so they get a better idea of each customer’s needs.

The Virtual Teams

Help Scout operates out of their Boston office but most of their positions can be done remotely. Their distributed team of 20 professionals reside in four countries and eleven states in the United States. Co-founder Nick Francis states that it all comes down to the people. Francis states that everyone has a good reason for living where they do, and their choices should prevent them from contributing great things to their company and its culture.

Francis notes various challenges in the remote business model. He says that “parties don’t work well for obvious reasons,” and in-office relationship building such as water cooler talk doesn’t happen spontaneously in a remote environment. He also notes that managing your time successfully as a remote worker takes practice and experience, meaning junior-level employees and interns may not work as productively or efficiently at first.

“Working remotely requires you to spend large blocks of time working autonomously and prioritizing your time accordingly, and you can only become great at that through experience.” – Nick Francis

According to Francis, the most beneficial aspect of virtual companies for both the employees and the business is a good work/life balance. Everyone on the Help Scout team is “encouraged (if not forced) to maintain a great balance between work and life.” Thanks to that, employees are able to live more productively without getting burned out, and that helps them enjoy their work more so they can see themselves staying with Help Scout indefinitely. Francis says this reduces turnover, which reduces costs for any business.

Learn more about what Nick and his team has learned building a remote work culture.

The Tools They Use

Trello*, Slack, Appear.in, Dropbox

6. Trello

Recruit the most talented people without having to worry about geographical boundaries. -@startupstella Click To Tweet

Founder: Joel Spolsky @spolsky and Michael Pryor @michaelpryor

The Company

Trello is a project management tool that organizes ideas and to-do lists into Kanban boards. Their software goes above and beyond with features that make virtual collaboration even easier. Boards can be assigned to specific users, users can upload files to boards, add checklists, have streamlined discussions and subscribe to certain boards to get email notification when there is activity.

The Virtual Teams

Trello has physical offices but supports remote work and will set their employees up wherever they are in the world as long as they have a quiet place to work, a good Internet connection and can be legally paid. Their website states “Computers and networks are pretty good nowadays. There’s no reason you should have to uproot your personal life when you can do your job at home.”

Stella Garber, Vice President of Marketing at Trello, says that their remote teams come together for monthly “Town Halls” to discuss the bigger picture. Trello’s virtual employees are able to ask Trello’s founders questions and discuss the mission, goals and strategy of the business. Garber says “it’s always a rewarding experience.”

One of the biggest successes that Trello has had with remote teams is the ability to complete large scale projects effectively. They were able to develop an efficient system of collaboration and teamwork across a distributed workforce, allowing their employees to “live their lives on their own terms” and cut unnecessary commutes out of their lives. Garber points out the benefits this has for Trello employees’ productivity and happiness.

Garber does point out the loss of the inherent company culture that comes with being together in a physical office. She states that one of the challenges of remote teams is getting to know each other quickly. Also, things like sarcasm don’t come across well in chat.

Despite the challenges, Garber says that having remote teams allows them to recruit the most talented people without having to worry about geographical boundaries. “This is big time for business,” said Garber.

The Tools They Use

Trello*, Slack for chat, Appear.in for one-on-one meetings, GoTo Meeting for “Town Halls”

7. Batchbook

Trusting people to get a job done on a flexible schedule is freeing and empowering - @batchbook Click To Tweet

Founders: Pamela O’Hara @pamohara, Sean Ransom and Michelle Riggen-Ransom

The Company

Batchbook is a social CRM for small businesses that enables companies to easily organize contacts, set up to-do lists and close deals. Just drag in a list of your contacts and you can start building meaningful relationships with your best customers. Batchbook organizes contact information with tags, activities and custom fields of info so that you can build a complete profile for each of your customers, keep your most important tasks prioritized, and win sales. It helps you learn who your best leads are, what they want, and where they are in the buying processes. You can also stay on top of your customer relationships on-the-go with their intuitive mobile app.

The Virtual Teams

According to Batchbook VP of Strategy, Keri Calhoun, the most beneficial business aspect of having remote teams is the focused, high-quality work they get from their remote team. Calhoun says that they benefit massively from the dependable, consistently great work they receive.

“We’ve found that trusting people to get a job done on a flexible schedule is a huge benefit, valued on par with other more traditional benefits. It’s freeing and empowering, and we all work hard to offer and keep this quality of life.” – Keri Calhoun

Calhoun mentions two main challenges in managing remote teams in virtual companies. The first is administrative; as their leaders need to remain “hyperaware” of national and international boundaries their remote teams are in so that the business stays compliant in all levels of operations.  The second is maintaining a company culture and in-person bonding opportunities. Calhoun says that there are impromptu moments when Batchbook employees located in the same office will walk to food trucks together, grab a drink after work, or throw a party in the office. When this happens, they send pictures to re-cap those group activities to the full team, but it’s a poor substitute for the real thing.

To combat this and keep a concrete, tangible element in their remote team’s experience, Batchbook ships out large care packages with edibles, office supplies and other treats from co-workers. They send these care packages to their remote workers a few times a year as a nice reminder that other people on the team has their tastes and well-being in mind.

The benefits of virtual companies and remote teams outweigh the difficulties, especially in terms of talent and retention. As Calhoun puts it, “Our distributed team sticks around. Like glue. Very useful, sticky glue.” Having a distributed team also gives Batchbook access to a global talent pool that they wouldn’t have otherwise. They can hire excellent workers with the experience they need and keep everyone on par with industry expertise. Plus, with all the amazing tools they use, remote work is not only possible but productive and fun.

The Tools They Use

Google DriveSkypeHipChatDropboxPivotal Tracker*, Github*, Help Scout

Batchbook also consistently tests new tools to stay efficient and flexible. At the moment, they are testing and enjoying Slack “because it’s so fun to use and great for group collaboration.”

We hope that this article helped you gain a little more insight into how successful virtual companies operate and what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of remote teams. Whether you are looking to hire their services, use their products or collaborate with these companies, you can rest assured they have access to top talent from around the world and use innovative collaboration tools to get the job done well, efficiently and productively.

8. Buffer

You can look at timezones as an inconvenience, or you can embrace them. -@joelgascoigne Click To Tweet

Founders: Joel Gascoigne @joelgascoigne and Leo Widrich @LeoWid

The Company

Buffer provides a better way to share on social media. Drive traffic, increase engagement and save time by using their simple yet powerful social media tool. Their software comes with schedule optimizers based on post history, content suggestions for future posts and an automatic publisher that will keep your social media accounts active and interesting even when you’re offline. All you have to do is add your social media posts to your lineup, and they will be published periodically based on the schedule you choose.

The Virtual Teams

When you work with Buffer, “you will work in the place that makes you happy, that inspires you daily, and helps you to become the person that you wish to be.” They aim to utilize innovative online tools that allows team members to work towards building a better product and culture, despite being scattered across continents and time zones.

The quote above comes from the article The Joys and Benefits of Working as a Distributed Team, wherein Buffer Founder Joel Gascoigne highlights the magic of time difference. Gascoigne says that by having team members covering different time zones, they are able to respond to their customers more quickly and efficiently. They also have engineers from around the world, meaning their development teams literally never stop coding.

According to Adam Farmer, happiness hero at Buffer, the most beneficial aspect of virtual companies is the flexibility to integrate work and life and the freedom to approach work smarter, not harder. Remote work has also allowed the company to explore potential team members outside any geographic limitations. Farmer says “it really has been great to have so many amazing individuals from around the globe join us in our journey.” He states that it’s amazing to be able to continue to be productive and experience the freedom of working remotely, while learning so much about the world through teammates from around the globe.

Although “high-fives and hugs don’t translate very well through the remote environment,” Farmer says that the Buffer team is committed to finding ways to improve. Overall, “working remotely has been incredible.”

The Tools They Use

HipChat, Facebook groups, Jawbone UP, Hackpad, iDoneThis, Google Hangouts

Do you have any advice on running remote teams to add to this list? Are there any virtual companies that we missed? Let us know in the comments below!

*Hubstaff integrates with these tools

  • charlotte hanna

    This is excellent on virtual teams. I do not want to set up a virtual team but I am very interested in talking with you about virtual teams and how to move them to high performing teams with distributed leadership-if you have done this and what your experience is.

    Charlee

  • Meanu Normia

    Great insight, Thanks for sharing it. We are app development company and use trello,skype and proofhub for collaboration with remote teams.

  • Telework Recruiting

    Terrific, in-depth article on fully remote companies. Many companies begin remotely (i.e. from their spare bedrooms), but how often do they remain so? It’s refreshing to read about firms that embrace this model even past their start up stages. I will be sharing this with my job seeker groups, and passing on your free ebook to employers as well. Thank you.

    @hugomesser:disqus thanks for telling us about your new company. Looks like another valuable resource for job seekers!

  • Interesting to see a deeper analysis of companies succefully using remote teams! I see that there’s a handfull of companies that get mentioned in many posts > you did mention some that I didn’t know. I have been in the remote work industry for 10 years and believe that the future of work will change substantially the next decade. Apart from a handfull of startups, most companies are not working remote at all. They stick to the come to office (or maybe allow people to work from home for x days). But the real benefits lie in engaging talent from any place on earth > if you’re able to manage to work distributed, you can have the best people for any job. http://www.hugomesser.com

    We’ve recently launched an online marketplace, Ekipa.co, to hire full software teams from all over the world, instead of individuals or freelancers. Maybe interesting for you to have a look.

    By the way, I would love to feature an article of yours on our blog, maybe you can send me some guest post (hugo@ekipa.co) on how your tool helps distributed teams?

    • Yep Hugo, I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for reading. Our entire team is remote and even if everyone was right here in the same city, I still don’t think that we’d have an office.