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The raw truth about setting my own virtual business

The raw truth about setting my own virtual business

Career Matters is a virtual business.

This was a deliberate choice. I wanted to design a business that had a transformational impact and could travel! So I could work from anywhere. Fifteen years ago, I worked for a virtual consultancy called Astar. This was my first experience of how remote businesses could function and was a key ‘aha’ moment in my business life. As more of us look for alternatives to the office-based 9-5, I’m often asked for advice about how we set up and designed the company. So I thought I might write an article to share my insights and give you a “behind the scenes” look at Career Matters.

This article is all about how we made it work.

Virtual business is on the rise

Digital has made it easier than ever to work from home and build a team from a global pool of talent.

Our team lives all across the UK. From Yorkshire to Shropshire, Dorset to the Midlands and of course, in and around London. Some team members have yet to meet in person. Yet, we have been able to forge a strong connection and get on with making some super things happen for our clients. There are, I think, a few keys to really making this work.

Your Raison D’Etre

The first is to know what you are doing and why. Everyone needs to be aligned to a clear direction and vision. It’s a bit more practical than just a Why, thanks Simon Sinek, but it’s important to be clear about why you exist, so that everyone, everywhere, can align what they do with the purpose of the company.

Sounds simple. But actually, it takes quite a while to really hone and get clear on purpose, direction and mission. For me, these are the foundation stones.

Our Why: We exist to reunite people with their gifts so that they can do remarkable things.

Our How: We achieve this through our IP – the Career Equation®. We run workshops, talks, digital courses and write about how you can use the Equation to rediscover your strengths and create work that aligns with it.

Our Who: We serve professionals of all ages at key transition points in their careers. We’re also a “social impact business”, so we donate a % of profits to causes we believe in and we run pro-bono programmes for younger audiences.

Once you have these three pieces in place you have a platform to make a start. Then, you’ve got to decide on how you operationalise your big picture.

In the beginning, was The Job Title

The very same day I founded my business I got myself an impressive list of additional job titles. Head of Business Development, Marketing and Sales Lead, Contracts, Design Consultant, Digital Media Expert, People and Project Manager, Accounts and Payroll Administrator, Chief of Research and Development, Inspirational Speaker and Education and Trainer.

Yikes.

This is the thing. When you start a business, you will spend around 80% of your time generating the work you love to do. And just 20% of your time actually doing it. First, you need a clear message and you need to solve some kind of business pain or problem. Then you have to…

  • let people know that you solve it
  • win their trust to let you solve it
  • deliver an exceptional solution and great customer experience
  • need to get paid for it, evaluate your impact to improve

Rinse and repeat.

Whether you are in plumbing, T-shirt printing or careers consulting, the process is the same.

It was obvious that I needed great people on board to support me. Yet, like every business owner, you have to start by mastering the basics of all of these roles by yourself. When finances allow, you make your first hires. Until then, you wear all the hats.

The multiple hats are pretty exhausting. Plus, you still aren’t sure if your idea has legs. The advantage is that by the time you are ready to hire, you have a good understanding of what a role entails and the gaps in your knowledge and expertise that you want to fill with a specialist.

The best decision I made was to hire exceptional people who were way better than me at most of these things. So that I too, could focus my attention on my key gifts. All of our team run their own small businesses providing expertise in their chosen area. Our finance team, our designers, our facilitators and my wonderful PA and Project Manager, Jane. We’re sort of like the Olympic rings, with an intersection where we all dedicate time to Career Matters. This means that each person has a very high level of ownership and has to be autonomous, pro-active and very reliable. Neil Gaiman once said that to survive as a creative you need to be at least two out of three things. First, you have to be nice to work with. Second, you need to deliver exceptional work. Third, you must deliver on time. I decided I would aim to hire people who were good at all three things.

I just wanted a team of highly professional people around me who were excellent at their job, got things done, and were fun to work with. How hard can that be?

Any entrepreneur and, I am sure, any hiring manager in a larger business will tell you that finding great people is one of the biggest challenges of business. Our work is impossible without the help of exceptional people. It is my belief that the world of work is moving toward short term contracting from subject matter experts. I believe the idea of the permanent job will be ‘old hat’ in the next decade. For this reason, I’ve chosen to have people on the team who work flexibly and whose contracts relate to the outcomes they deliver rather than the hours they do.

Career Matters is a female-founded, female-dominated, 100% sterling remote digital company

Remote business works well for women. It allows us the flexibility to juggle competing priorities and to save the time and money spent on commuting. It seems to me no accident that women are turning to self-employment and enterprise in significant numbers. Though we still form only a fraction of the venture capital funded startups – women make up just 12% of these, there are lots of female-run small firms and, in particular, those that run as a digital business, with a remote team, working flexible hours, are definitely on the increase. Compared to traditional or startup office-based companies there is a marked increase of women CEO’s and founders in this field.

Research carried out by remote.co into 100% remote companies identified:

29% of completely remote companies have either women CEOs, founders, or presidents

13% have women CEOs versus in Fortune 500 companies, 6.4% of CEOs are women (the highest proportion in the 63-year history of the Fortune 500)

17% of start-ups in 2017 had women founders, a stat that hasn’t changed since 2012.

What consulting looks and feels like

As a consultancy, our work is all about people.

Whether we are speaking at events, to clients,  coaching 121, delivering group programmes, liaising with associates, exploring outcomes and impact with our clients, the business is fuelled by delivering a high-level service that provides value to the client.

With a consultancy business, we spend a long time perfecting a product, testing it, gathering feedback, working out the design kinks and how best to measure impact. The classic consulting flow runs from first client contact, proposal, contracts, design, implementation and into feedback an improvement. I’ve worked in five different consulting companies over the years and so attempted to take the best from each of their approaches.

We’ve worked hard to design a ‘best in class’ process and then continue to iterate so that our clients receive seamless experiences, every time.

Working at a distance has meant that these processes need to be absolutely clear and the systems we set up need to be watertight, so nothing falls through the gaps.

All of what we do would not be possible without the right collaborative technology. After a lot of shopping around, we settled on a project collaboration tool called Monday.

Monday has enabled us to have an ‘at a glance’ view of what one another is up to and to request feedback and input in real time, without clogging up our inboxes. It has helped us to design projects and workflows that are colourful, easy to follow and customised for our specific client needs.

Another great tool for new businesses is Xero. Xero offers us an at a glance financial dashboard, with everything from P&L, VAT payable, to outstanding invoices, to payments due and a live banking feed in one simple screen. Wonderful!

Lastly, we use the B1G1 platform to create giving impacts. B1G1 works on the basis that if every business got into the habit of making small and regular giving impacts, we could easily meet the UN Development Goals. Our commitment this year, is that every time we have a key client touchpoint – a project signed off or delivered, we provide a day’s enterprise education for a woman in an emerging economy. We hope to give 2000 days of education away this year, with your help!

The Marketing Bit

When setting up a business consultancy the first question you need to ask is “What do I want my brand to represent?”

A strong brand is essential especially for an innovative consultancy business that works with powerful international companies with their own distinctive brands and identities.

I, therefore, made a decision to really commit to exceptional marketing. And oh, what a commitment! Digital strategy, done well, delivers exceptional results. We all know we ‘ought to be on social media’ or ‘have a good website’, but every company needs it’s own approach – as one size does not fit all.

In this regard, my team here have made all the difference.

They have helped me weave together the right brand and approach for our market and so I have been able to invest my attention and our resources on the right key elements, for us.

In the thought leader space that we inhabit, our strategy has three key elements.

★Branding – our branding is distinctive, high quality and trademarked. We needed to build trust and convey the professionalism and quality of our work.

★Thought-leadership – our approach is based on fifteen years of work in the leadership consulting, careers coaching and employability space. I’ve worked hard to have an original solution and point of view. Conveying this takes time. Whether it is quality case studies for a brochure, a 2000 word article (I write around 40,000 words a year for our blog, the same volume as my book, Your Career Plan) or a guest blog or post for a partner organisation, there’s a lot to say, research, schedule, plan and articulate. And all that, never knowing if anyone will actually read it!

★Collaboration and engagement – we love to share ideas and best practice with other thought leaders and experts. So we constantly reach out to other companies to hear from them, partner to share ideas and build links both virtually and in-person. In 2018, these included attending panels for Robert Walters, writing thought leadership for Sheerluxe and Huffington Post and delivering complimentary webinars with Capability Jane.

A little look behind the scenes on our digital strategy…

We post high quality, original content across Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.

This is managed through Buffer using the free version which comes with ten posts a week. This works just fine for us; we are not a great fan of posting too much too often.

We also make use of the newsletter – we have one for our clients (subscribe here) and another internal one which goes out to all our associates and team members that we work with across the UK.

Our internal newsletter is the ‘conversation catch up ’round the water cooler’ type update, to keep everyone in the picture of what’s going on.

We used a mix of Google AdWords and Neil’s Patel Ubersuggest.

Every month we have a meeting to share the Google Analytics data so everyone across the team knows how we are performing. We also measure our click rates and open rates for email. We use Active Campaign for email software.

Research data is refreshed annually using more sophisticated tools, like Alexa and Moz. These sites give us insight on what people are searching for and how our ‘domain authority’ that is, our credibility in the space, is doing against our competitors.

Using our keywords on our website makes it Search Engine Optimised. This means it’s easy for people, looking for what we provide, to find us. We use the premium version of Yoast – it’s an amazing tool and makes SEO so much easier.

Introducing Oana – the Digital Marketer 🤓

“For me, working for Career Matters is extremely rewarding both professionally and personally.

I am a parent of two and nothing is more valuable than the time I get to spend with my kids. It’s true that working from home can be challenging but the freedom and closeness that my job brings is absolutely empowering.

What it is the most amazing thing about Career Matters (and what I love the most) is that we are a digital business, where remote working, freedom and innovative thinking are possible and where I have room to grow, learn new skills and express my passions”. 

The Wider Team

Exceptional educators. I am always looking for people who are exceptional educators. We have a house style to our training. We also require that every single facilitator has made a career changed of their own so they can talk with credibility about the possibility of making a lateral move or trying something new. Our facilitators come from all sorts of backgrounds. At the start, they were colleagues I had met during my years in consulting, but more and more, they are fresh faces and new to me talent, who seek us out because they are excited by our vision. We’re fussy! We run assessments and have a rigorous training programme and a house facilitator guide. It’s wonderful to have the benefit of a number of smart and committed minds to help me think through our next design and making sure our programmes deliver on our promises.

So how does this remote team working work? Can we trust one another? How do we juggle our other commitments? How do you manage someone who isn’t in the room? Let’s hear from Jane to find out!

A Word from Jane – the PA from heaven

I run my own business providing PA services and have several clients I work for. What I love about working for Erica at Career Matters is being part of a team of inspiring, innovative thinkers, and knowing that we are really making a difference to people’s lives. We are all solution focused and want to do an amazing job. The desire to be excellent is part of our brand. This challenges me to do my best, not only for Career Matters but across my business.

Team Working

Career Matters gives me great variety, not only traditional PA work such as managing a complex CEO calendar but also the challenges of seeing a project from start to finish – along with all the bits in between. Unlike some of my other clients, with Career Matters, I also work with marketing and design. This means I am part of a team, not just working 121. Despite being in different parts of the country, we have built a great sense of unity and being part of something worthwhile.

Well, I didn’t know that!

It’s a job where I am also always acquiring new knowledge: from researching Intellectual Property, and Trademarking to how to get a course accredited. A few months ago, Erica wanted a way people could book a call with her direct from our website. It was incredibly satisfying to get that up and running and another way to make things run more efficiently.

The Highs and the Lows

There are so many pros to remote working. With Career Matters, there is no expectation to work set times. I can fit the work around my life. I can take my children to school and pick them up again, not panic when they are off sick and don’t have to take a whole morning off just to see them in a school play.

This is so valuable to me. It does mean I need to be very clear in setting boundaries and communicating when I am not available, so I chose to work with people who also understand this.

Running a remote business requires a different mindset from working with the same people in one location all of whom live within a reasonable radius of the office. Even though I work mainly from home, I’ve also logged in from Devon, North Wales and on a trip to Vietnam.

My client base is potentially global – as long as someone has access to the internet then I can work with them, this has meant I have worked with some inspiring people that I might never have otherwise met. It does come with some challenges of course. Career Matters is one of a set of clients, and I need to handle competing demands on my professional time. This requires planning, very clear communication and making sure I don’t over promise.

Communication can be a challenge without the right tools. Because we are a remote company, we need to all be in contact with each other easily. We don’t sit side by side or see each other in the flesh. We use a variety of tools including Monday for project management and Zoom for our calls.

The Remote Future

There is a reason there is a rise in remote working. It works. Not just for women, not just for parents. Of course, there are times when nothing replaces face time – and we make sure to schedule these in across the year.

Yet around 65% of people would like to work remotely and flexibly, yet so few companies offer this opportunity. Smaller companies have greater agility to do so and businesses like mine, that are not a retail environment or without high levels of security concerns, can obviously adapt more easily to having a remote team. And it isn’t for everyone. Not everybody has the skills set and discipline to work at home, not everybody likes it and not all professions fit.

But where possible, the benefits are obvious: reduced office costs, the demise of the rush hour, access to a wider talent pool, team productivity and morale benefits – these are just some of the most often cited.

Remote working is also giving people the autonomy to own their career, take responsibility for what they do, understand their market value, and relate to colleagues in a new way. This is a career format you can own and manage yourself. It may also prove to be a tremendous boost to family life.

For myself, having a virtual consulting company means I can plan to spend time with my husband at our home in Italy and still be available for our clients and for my team. I don’t think I will ever be a digital nomad, I am a bit too much of a homebird for that, but I love that, like a tortoise, I can take my work with me!

So there you have it! An insider view on Career Matters. 

We wanted to give you a perspective on how a modern, parent-friendly, virtual consultancy does our business. What other questions would it be useful for us to answer?

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