Distributed teams: The growth strategy used by the savviest startups

By Heidi Sundin and Nina Sochon

Growing an amazing business requires strategy and breakthrough thinking. In this article we propose an approach you may not have thought of to address one of your key challenges: building your team.

For many small businesses seeking growth, there are some essential elements required for your growth strategy.

Whilst it is important to have a good understanding of your current state – ‘where are we now?’ –  and your desired state – ‘where are we going? -’ having clear objectives is not enough.

Clarification is required around your target market, size of the addressable market, and your tailored value proposition for selected markets. One of the challenges for startups and SMEs is building the right skill sets within the business to be able scale and rise to the growth challenge.

Growing a small business or start up can often raise the chicken or egg question, should we wait until we have locked in revenue before hiring or shall we invest in recruiting essential resources and skill sets to generate leads, sales and ensure delivery capability?

In many cases entrepreneurs or small business founders play multiple roles (leader, owner, manager, operator, marketer). The catch is, in order to scale, there is a need to delegate parts (or entire functions) of these roles by bringing in more capacity and skill sets, both on the delivery side as well as in support services. Those skill sets enable more leads and conversion of sales, management of workflow, administration and people issues, as well as efficient procurement or supply chain management and logistics.

Of course recruiting full-time office based resources involves risk, especially at these early stages. The thing is, as a small business you know there is a sizable market to tap into and you know you need to improve your marketing capabilities, workflow management, delivery capability and technology resourcing, but you also know this is adding fixed costs before increased sales are made.

Adding to the conundrum, there are considerations around having more or too many direct reports, finding the right talent, integrating new staff members into the team, ensuring the right cultural fit, and investing the time it takes to get team members inducted and up and running and ultimately adding value.

Breakthrough approach

One option is to think differently about how you bring in talent to help your business grow. Recruiting full-time office based staff is clearly not the only option. Alternatives may include part-time staff, hiring consultants or utilising contractors.

Start ups experience a real breakthrough when they expand their thinking beyond consideration of only their local area. Specifically, there is a huge difference between the size of the talent pool in the commutable area around your office and the talent available nationally and internationally. What this means for your business could be huge.

Distributed teams enable you to recruit the best in your industry. Quiip is Australia’s most experienced community management firm. Talking about their completely remote work arrangement, Julie Delaforce, General Manager says, “It really helps us attract the best talent”.

One distributed team Nina recently worked with faced the enviable challenge of choosing between too many high quality candidates for a recent position. They shortlisted 30 high quality candidates after advertising the position as a remote working position.

Frederic Chanut, Managing Director and founder of In Marketing We Trust, a medium-sized marketing firm, looked outside Sydney to find contractors he could afford. Buying that labour in Sydney was simply out of budget.

Ultimately, there are multiple benefits of building a distributed team if your SME is in a growth phase: avoid locked and fixed full-time employee costs; tap into a broader talent pool, who may be based interstate or internationally; access a greater diversity of skill sets; and avoid the need to take on additional office space costs. Successful distributed teams can create a more agile cost base while bringing in talent to accelerate progress.

A distributed team is a unique arrangement. Whether your team consists of part-time workers, contractors, consultants or full-time staff, the challenge is to achieve strong team communication, performance and culture while working across distances.

For businesses going down the path of building a distributed team, here are some suggestions to kick things off:

  • Determine the areas of the business, activities or projects where you need additional expertise, but don’t have the budget for full-time or even part-time resources
  • Determine the overall budget available for additional resources
  • Put the call out for assistance – social media channels such as linkedin or new platforms such as Expert 360, Freelancer and Airtasker, can be useful
  • Look for people with deep experience of working remotely, don’t assume that people with a strong skill base in other areas have developed the skill of working effectively as a remote worker
  • Before working together with your remote team members, define the ‘rules of engagement’ for your distributed team. Successful distributed teams often implement a team charter, which outlines team members’ agreement on how they will communicate.
  • Use technology to your advantage by including videoconferencing. Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom are free and easy to use. Other collaboration tools should complement video: document sharing, screen sharing and instant messaging.
  • Replicate the water cooler. Social conversations don’t ‘just happen’ in remote teams, a dedicated channel is needed.

Distributed teams are a powerful way to grow your startup. Why limit your growth strategy with traditional thinking, when a global talent pool is at your fingertips!

Nina Sochon creates distributed teams that outperform co-located teams by up to 22%. Nina led a cutting edge strategy team that delivered on the Australian Government’s goal to double the number of people working from home. She shows organisations how to rethink flexible work styles to succeed both here and now and in the future of work. Her flexible work framework is considered leading practice in Australia and New Zealand.

Heidi Sundin is a management consultant working with businesses to drive growth. Her approach is to collaborate with leaders and teams to develop customer centric tailored solutions. Her experience spans creating transformational programs and change across corporate, professional services, academic, government and the non-for-profit sectors.

Making collaboration magic

By Heidi Sundin and Hamish Anderson

For centuries we believed ‘knowledge is power’.  In the 21st century the belief is shifting to recognise that ‘collaboration is power’.

Isn’t it ironic that it has taken until the 21st century for a term which is derived from Latin to rise to such prominence. We have finally moved into an era where there is growing understanding of the magic that collaboration can bring in creating ideas, actions and momentum to solve issues, large and small.

Collaboration is more than an alliance, relationship, network or a partnership. Meaningful collaboration arises from the coming together of people with greatly differing experiences and views, united by a common mindset and goal.

Hamish and I have both worked in many different types of collaborations and in our experience the coming together of different knowledge sets, organisations, groups and individuals enables a process of discovery that spans disciplinary divides; and ultimately one that creates something unique. So, we thought we’d share with you our views on the key ingredients to making collaborations successful.

Common purpose

From the outset it is important to be really clear about the common purpose the collaboration is working towards. Of course individual parties may have specific goals and interests in participating in collaborative efforts, but we believe there needs to be an overarching common goal.

There may be times in collaborative processes where the different interests of participants are in conflict, so having clarity over ‘why’ you are collaborating and your common purpose can break down impasses, and bring discussions back to the reason you’re all there.

Rules of engagement

Collaborations often involve different organisations, groups or people who come together to share IP, ideas, and engage in various ideation processes. To ensure there is mutual benefit from the collaboration (in whatever form that benefit takes) it is essential that you determine the rules or key principles of engagement.

What we’ve found works well for us is to adopt the principles: ‘openness’ ‘curiosity’ and a ‘high level of debate’.  As collaborators we acknowledge that from open and rigorous debate better solutions will emerge. Part of signing up to these principles is that debate is always about the interrogation of ideas not about the person putting them forward.

Being open

If we wanted to get to an answer that we already ‘kind of knew’ there would be little point in collaborating. For collaborations to be successful, the people within them must be genuinely open to pushing the boundaries – committed to discovery and the belief that through sharing they will arrive at an answer they never could have in isolation.

Trust in your collaborators

Sharing brings some vulnerability. There are different types of trust: contractual trust, competence trust and goodwill trust. In collaborations, a higher reliance on competence trust (trust that the individual / collaborator has the abilities to perform the task) and goodwill trust (trust that the individual has the intent to perform the task) will more likely lead to better outcomes as they provide a platform for more open and creative engagement.

Trust in the process

The process of discovery and invention can take you down uncomfortable paths that you may not have arrived at alone. To uncover the gold that comes from collaboration, give yourself over to the process, rather than fixate on the immediate solutions and outcomes.

Utilise new tools available

Collaboration is not just a talk fest, and it’s important to capture the thoughts, ideas and decisions as you go. If you cannot get into the same room, there are many online cloud based collaboration tools that can be used to bring your teams together in a virtual space and record the process. Consider using tools such as: Stormboard,  Confluence, Trello and Google Drive – these tools allow the collaborative team to brainstorm, organize, prioritize ideas, create a shared workspace to chat, share documents, work on documents together and move things along.

Bringing it together

Collaboration is magical. By working together collaborations provides us a powerful process of discovery to take knowledge and creativity to a new place.

Those who do not believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl

Collaboration is about achieving something purposeful – be it a specific outcome, open innovation, or the skill of collaboration itself – but for long lasting collaborations we believe that a large part of it should also be fun! So, above all else, we encourage you to incorporate fun, joy, and energy into your collaborations.

About the authors

Heidi Sundin is a management consultant working with businesses to drive growth. Her approach is to collaborate with leaders and teams to develop customer centric tailored solutions. Her experience spans creating transformational programs and change across corporate, professional services, academic, government and the non-for-profit sectors. 

Hamish Anderson is the Founder and Director at Mesh Consulting. Hamish is passionate about pushing the envelope and has a track record of success across offline & online marketing, strategy development, customer acquisition, web, SEM, social and content development.