Liam Martin is the co-founder & CMO of Staff.com, an online staffing agency that makes it easy and affordable for companies to find talented workers, and Time Doctor, a software tool for employers and employees that helps maximize remote work productivity. Trada spoke to Liam about the future of remote work, and how small businesses can make the most of the growing contract work economy.
Trada: How did you first become interested in the business of remote and contract workforces?
Liam Martin: I ran a business and was teaching and studying at McGill University in Canada. I’d been a TA for 5-6 years and I was given a sessional class because, I thought, that was going to be what I’d do with my life. But when I started teaching that class I realized teaching was not what I wanted. I actually really disliked that experience. The students weren’t engaged and I was paid what worked out to $3/hour.
I walked into my supervisor’s office and said, “I don’t think I’m very good at this.” And he looked at me and said, “I don’t think you are either, and you might want to quit.” I ended up tutoring some of the same students outside of the classroom, and discovered I was making more money than I had been while teaching the class. This led to my starting an online tutoring company through Skype, quite a few years ago. That grew up to over 100 tutors in North America and Europe. That’s what got me into remote working and being able to give people the freedom to work wherever they want whenever they want.
I had no technology background but I was an entrepreneur. I had built a sporting goods company in undergrad, and I’d sold that to fund grad school, which I thought was going to be my direction in life. It took a few years of graduate school to realize that’s not what I wanted to do.
When and why did you start TimeDoctor and Staff.com? What was it like to be a small business hiring in the climate in which you launched both respectively?
Liam Martin: When we started working on TimeDoctor, I had just sold a huge contract that made the tutoring company more profitable than it had ever been. I realized I wasn’t passionate about it. I’d be waking up and not that interested in what I was doing. I ended up speaking at SXSW where I met Rob Rawson, who had this crappy little beta product called Time Doctor.
My tutoring business had a problem with accountability and hours. Student would say, “well, the tutor didn’t spend 10 hours, s/he spent five hours” and the tutor would say “no, I spent 10.” So I’d have to completely refund students for those extra hours but end up paying the tutor for the full 10 hours, and I’d be left with nothing. That was destroying profits. I really wanted a technological solution to this problem and there was nothing out there. Time Doctor was the first product that could actually do that. And I realized it was the right opportunity. After buying a way too big TV and leather couch where I sat and watched TV for a few weeks I called Rob and said, “I’m too bored let’s start something”. That was three years ago.
There were other solutions like oDesk and Elance, but we felt their platform was good for small projects but not good for long-term working relationships, which was the issue for us. I had always run my businesses remotely and so had Rob, my business partner. Between us we had people who had been with us for almost 10 years in different countries. We didn’t really want to give a percentage of those employees salaries to a platform to be able to connect us. There was no platform that could monitor productivity (vs anything else) before that point.
There were apps that could secretly be installed into your employees’ computers and we just philosophically did not agree with that. We wanted to make people more productive, not work longer hours. Our philosophy is, if you’re the most productive employee in the company, as long as you complete your tasks, you’re doing great. TimeDoctor incorporates transparent website and application tracking let us know how productively everyone is on your team.
What are some of the biggest challenges for small businesses who need to hire contractors?
Liam Martin: One of the biggest challenges for remote contractors is lack of education. They do not understand that managing a remote employee is fundamentally different from a local employee. If a local employee does something wrong, you can tell them how to do it right because they’re right next to you. When they’re 10,000 miles away it’s a different experience. You need operational procedures and the ability to digitize them on a wiki site for instance and communicate that information clearly and concisely within your organization. Fortune 500’s do this all the time, but small- and medium- sized businesses don’t because of the time invested in getting these procedures up and running. But once you get them up and running, it forces you to be more efficient.
What’s an example of a small company who does a great job managing their remote workforce?
Liam Martin: One of the best examples is the US patent office. Out of their roughly 14,000 workers, at least 9,000 are remote. They’ve taken an entire US department and made that department remote-capable! When you work for the patent office, you’re issued a cell phone and laptop, have a network of coworking spaces all over the US you can access, or if you really do want to work in office, you can and float from office to office across the country. The kind of stuff they’re doing is innovative. They put out a magazine every month about their remote HR philosophies.
On a smaller scale, one great company to look at is Buffer. They’ve got a remote culture I really respect. They made the decision very early to be completely remote, and a lot of the times organizations will be half-remote and half local, and I find with that relationship the remote employees are left out, and they feel like second class citizens because they’re not in the office. I respect their philosophy of 100% remote to make sure everyone is equal within the organization.
You have to be able to include the remote people who work for you. For us, we have a water cooler chat on Skype, or you can use Slack–really any type of “always on” type app will work where we talk about anything and everything on that chat. We also do things like host birthday parties where we have a remote celebration.
Our Staff.com/Time Doctor teams touch base with each other at least 4-5 times per year, so we’ll have countries that we’ll all fly into. We just did our Christmas party, and we had 4-5 different remote Christmas parties going all at the same time. A lot of the times these Christmas parties are a lot cheaper than if you were doing it in the office. You buy everyone some food and drinks and have them show up at a particular bar and that’s pretty fun. Everyone wants to touch base with the people they know online. When you’ve actually hired that vs. taken them on for a short-term project, it’s important to onboard them properly, not just, “you’re going to do this work for me,” but form a cultural perspective connecting with them to see what their goals are, will they stay with you for 10 years or two years, how will you help them develop to lead your organization, etc. When they first join up, send them some T-shirts to help them feel like, hey, I’m included in this organization.
We just heard of a scenario of a remote employee who was hired from a company called Pavlok that makes a wearable device that will shock you if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, like if you’re going to show up at the gym by 9am, the bracelet shocks you or gives money to your friend or posts to your Facebook. Maneesh, the founder, hired a virtual assistant through us who was so indoctrinated that when everyone at the company got Pavlok tattoos, the remote employee surprised everyone by getting his own.
How do you know whether your small business should invest in a remote workforce?
Liam Martin: A lot of people talk about how remote work is cheaper. You don’t have to pay for an office, and you don’t have to pay for regular overhead of an employee. It’s also a much more efficient environment. A study from stanford that shows that remote worker are on average 13% more productive than in-office counterparts and have 50% lower attrition rates than in-office counterparts.
Most of the time when people quit a job it’s due to interoffice politics. They don’t like managers, coworkers, or get angry and stressed and quit. With remote work, that really doesn’t happen because you’re not interacting with them in the same way. For parents, it’s also a much more stress-free environment. You can have a mother or father who can also manage small children while working at the same time. Those pieces together makes for a much more interesting , much less stressful work environment than in-office counterparts.
I love working remotely. I’d hate to work in an office. A lot of young people agree with that philosophy. It hasn’t hit the over-forty crowd as much, but younger workers really want coworking spaces and working from home. If you’re hiring younger people, maybe look at remote as the first step. It’s also cheaper than in-office counterparts. If you’re building a startup, you’ll probably need founders to be in the same room together either meeting up on a regular basis or be in the same city. The reason why is because there’s large decisions that have to be made. Rob and I didn’t make that decision; we live on polar opposite sides of the world–he’s in Australia and I’m in Canada. It’s a big difference! If we were going to do it over again we’d put the founding team in one place (I mean, maybe 3 people) and then outside of that everyone else would be remote.
How do you distinguish whether you need a short-term contractor relationship such as someone to overhaul your PPC or a long-term contractor relationship that’s more like an employee?
Liam Martin: For me, if you need a project done, if the task doesn’t have to be recurring, then go with a short-term contractor. Trada’s PPCPath would be very good for that for your marketing. If you need a project of getting a website built, oDesk and Elance are good for that. For very small jobs, Fiverr is great–anything for five bucks. Their prices are now a little higher than they were in the past, but it’s still a great platform for one simple thing done. Mechanical Turk is great for large-scale crowd-sourced tasks. From what I’ve seen, PPCPath is truly the best for PPC project work. There’s all those platforms that are designed and smaller tasks for long-term you’d want. TimeDoctor and Staff.com is when you’re doing a recurring task and aren’t in need of a single task done–that’s when you’d want a long term working relationship.
What do you see as emerging industry trends in remote work for 2015?
Liam Martin: You’re gonna see a major shift where a lot of people who are below the age of 30 will become managers and executives within organizations. I’ve started to see this over last 2-3 years, these young people will be running fortune 500 companies. Costs are getting higher and higher, and they will continue to institute remote working relationships. This will work from two perspectives: 1) it will be cheaper for these organizations to hire remotely on a contract basis vs. directly and 2) young people no longer want stability of a long-term job. They want shorter term jobs; but not 200 dollar projects either. They want 2-5 year contracts and then they’ll take that experience and go on to the next one and as these organizations evolve to institutionalize remote working.
Are there any remote workforce industry stats that are important for businesses to know?
Liam Martin: Staffing is worth $500 billion. Platform-based remote is 1.5% – 3.0% of this, which is a small part. I actually think based on research we’ve been doing that we’ve got long-term based remote workers not being counted within this 500 billion and it’s 10x the current size of the remote space. Basically, I believe in addition to the $2 Billion we can see, there’s $20 Billion underneath it. There are contractors who are working in US, Europe, Southeast Asia and are getting salaries on par or above the local counterparts. I’ve seen employees getting paid $16,000/month to do incredibly complex things only 10-12 people on planet can do and need to have a way to track and pay employee internationally and we’re only platform that can do that. We’re seeing higher and higher salaries coming out of these remote platforms, and more specifically not coming out of platforms. I think the real money is located outside of these platforms and that’s the demo we’re targeting.
Our goal is to service the long-term remote working economy vs. the project-based economy. I think this is really the tip of the iceberg. I’d be interested to see in the next 10 years what happens; I think the ratio will be the same. The project-based economy will be $20 billion and the economy that we aren’t seeing and tracking will be about $200 billion. It’s an exciting time to both be hiring and be hired for remote work.