Revenue and fresh deals were on the upswing at New Media Campaigns when one of its top website developers dropped some disruptive news on Clay Schossow.
"His girlfriend had gotten a job in Wisconsin, and he wanted to move with her," recalls Schossow, co-founder of the Carrboro-based web development company. "He said, 'I love you guys. But I love her a little more.'"
With the company having fewer than 10 employees overall, Schossow and his partners didn't think it made sense to open a satellite office in another state. They also didn't want to lose one of their top employees.
"We invest a lot in finding the right people," Schossow says. "If they leave, it will take months to find someone to fill their shoes."
So they agreed their colleague would stay on full-time and telecommute from Madison. Later on, another employee moved to Oregon. They kept him, too. They told their team in Carrboro to work wherever they wanted - at the office or at home or next door at the coffee shop, where they opened a tab for employees.
Schossow and partners Joel Sutherland and Kris Jordan, who founded the company in 2006 as students at UNC-Chapel Hill, made Bloomberg BusinessWeek's list this year of America's best young entrepreneurs. Their focus on retaining top talent by accommodating life priorities has played a major role in their company's rise.
New Media Campaigns develops affordable, top-flight web sites for clients on five continents - and carved out an early niche helping nonprofits and state and local political campaigns, which desperately need good sites to spread their message but often find it hard to afford them. The company, which makes pro bono work for nonprofit clients a regular priority, has annual revenue of about $1 million.
Its eclectic list of clients includes Elaine Marshall's U.S. Senate campaign, the Durham Convention Center, the N.C. Community Foundation, Peace College, the Sampson County Economic Development Commission, and The Rhodes Trust, which administers the Rhodes Scholarships program. And its founders' passion for helping worthy organizations extend their reach is as effective for recruiting talent to New Media Campaigns as it is for retaining it.
As our state vies for the top talent needed to fuel innovation and economic growth, New Media Campaigns' experience offers a couple of vital lessons. First, technology makes it possible to leverage the best minds out there on our behalf without requiring them to be here physically. Second, running a virtual office works only if you know what you're doing.
A report in October by Right Management found that three out of four organizations in the United States already employ telecommuters. Nearly half of them expect to increase those numbers in the year ahead as technology improves, workers push for more flexibility, and companies try to manage office and commuting costs. But virtual work presents a unique set of leadership challenges - and Schossow has some valuable tips, learned through trial and error, for handling them.
The first key to success: Hire employees who are disciplined, trustworthy self-starters. Telecommuting won't work for people who require the constant crack of their boss's whip. Beyond that, getting the maximum value from remote talent comes down to two factors: accountability and communication.
New Media Campaigns had a good handle on the former from the start. The company stays very busy, creating about 100 websites a year. With just nine employees, slackers have nowhere to hide. To ensure efficiency, Schossow and his team set individual project milestones to keep employees focused and work flowing, and the company uses 37Signal's Basecamp project management tool to track progress on all of its jobs.
Fostering good communication, however, wasn't quite as easy. Like many companies in its industry, New Media prides itself on a free-wheeling creative culture that keeps meetings to a minimum. But as its people dispersed, disconnects mounted.
Suddenly, not everyone knew when new sites launched. Work from one project that could have been leveraged in another was inadvertently duplicated instead. Good news, like new deals, didn't reach everyone.
Finally, Schossow and his partners set up a weekly phone check-in, lasting just 30 minutes, to keep everyone updated on key news. They opened a group chat room and increased use of instant messaging for one-on-one updates with staff.
"It took us about a year to figure this all out, and that was probably too long," Schossow says. "You can't be afraid to put some structure in place."
Even with the hiccups that telecommuting can cause, Schossow sees it as a cornerstone of his company's long-term success. Clients are happy. Revenue keeps rising. And he figures those trends will continue as long as he hangs onto the right people.
"It's all about retaining great talent," he says.
Christopher Gergen is the founding executive director of Bull City Forward and is on the faculty of the Hart Leadership Program at Duke University. Stephen Martin, a former business and education journalist, is a speechwriter at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership. They can be reached at email@example.com.