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How to Run an Agency from Anywhere in the World

on June 4, 2012

Here is some of my coverage of the 2012 Future Insights Live conference in Las Vegas where I was reporting for Dice and Dice News.

Theoretically, if you create a digital product (e.g., develop applications, design websites), you could work from anywhere. If that was true, how come so much development talent is concentrated in areas such as Silicon Valley and San Francisco? It’s because location still matters, even with digital goods.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, as Dan James (@danjamesceo) has proven. James is the founder of silverorange, a successful 11-member design shop based in Prince Edwards Island, Canada. Silverorange has produced some really successful logo and web design work for companies such as Firefox, Digg, Bebo, and Ning.

At the Future Insights Live conference in Las Vegas, James gave a presentation entitled “Running and Growing a Successful Design Agency, Anywhere!” where he shared some of his insights from running his own business.

James was incredibly open about his business and his income. He admitted that his CEO salary was $70K a year which was the same money all his employees get.

He reassured the audience that it’s ok to do client work. Developers don’t necessarily have to work on a product. The reward for doing good client work is more work.

James provided the following model for building a successful digital business that’s operating in a remote location or has many employees working remotely.

Rules for running a successful remote business

  • Do good work. Simple enough.
  • Build relationships with coworkers and clients. Relationships should be built on intentionality, honesty, and open communications. You need to own your mistakes, but also spend fun time (not just work time) together.
  • Remote working has to be in your DNA. After three employees decided to travel thousands of miles away, they had no choice but to think like a virtual agency.
  • Need some face time. It is easier to work with someone remotely if you have worked with them before in person. You need to consistently, and regularly, meet in person.
  • Over communicate. Rarely is this the problem. It’s usually the opposite. And with remote work you don’t have the advantages of closeness and body language.
  • Just be in the room. When James is away, he calls in and is connected to an open conference phone so people can have casual impromptu conversations with him even though he’s not there.
  • Video calls are essential. Especially necessary when more than two people are communicating.
  • Write things down. You need to track things.
  • Eat together. This is where socialization happens.
  • Have regular get togethers. Greater socialization.
  • Play together. Learn about each other.

How to build relationships with clients when you’re so far away

  • Go see them. Even if you might lose a little money on the first project with the cost of the plane ticket and hotel room, it’ll be worth it to create a long-term relationship with the client.
  • Meeting clients in-person will drastically increase the effectiveness of your client communications online. There is just something positive about meeting the person that brings great value to the relationship when it goes virtual.
  • Over communicate. Like mentioned before, always err on the side of too much communication. Have the client tell you to cool it.
  • Ensure that your client knows all the ways they can contact you in off business hours. Don’t worry, clients don’t abuse that privilege.
  • Always respond in the same medium that they’ve chosen. If they email you, don’t pick up the phone and call…unless it’s an emergency.
  • “Got it” emails. You need to acknowledge the receipt of the email and that you’re working on it.
  • One issue per message. Don’t load up a single email with multiple tasks. Instead, they have multiple short emails each with a different task. This has been the most powerful rule that has increased productivity.
  • Schedule some time to think. We’re all in a creative business.
  • Tell them your thoughts. Share ideas with clients as that may spur more business.
  • Create “wow” moments. James told a story of sending baked goods to a prospective client.
  • Build your business. Negotiate your pay structure to include some type of revenue share based on the client’s success. While he hasn’t made much money this way (yet), it does create an emotional connection between his client and their work. They truly are partners. Ask for a reduced rate for equity in the company.

It’s all about the relationships

Whether your business operates close to your clients or thousands of miles away, business success is all about relationships, said James. And he advised to simply just do good work, and never stop having fun.

Stock photo of mailboxes along the road courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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