HIRING

The Case Against Burning the Midnight Oil

Long hours at the office with your team isn't the only way to build a business, according to entrepreneur Sara Sutton Fell.
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Think of the start-up life and you'll probably picture young dreamers asleep under their desks, working all hours and powering themselves with caffeine drinks and the will to succeed. But while the vision and determination are probably non-negotiable for would-be business founders, "starting a company can be done in many different ways," according to FlexJobs founder and CEO Sara Sutton Fell.

FlexJobs is Sutton Fell's second business. Her first looked very much like the stereotypical portrait of start-up life above. "We were young. We were energetic, and we worked 24/7. We literally slept at the office. We were just hard-core, collaborative, thriving off that, and it was wonderful. Grew the company. Sold it. Yay," she says of her earlier entrepreneurial effort.

But full-on, round-the-clock cohabitation of the startup dream isn't the only way to interact with talent if you're starting a business and pressed for cash, according to Sutton Fell. For proof, fast-forward a decade or so to her latest venture, a flexible-jobs site that practices what it preaches, relying entirely on a virtual workforce dialing in from around the country.

"I've decided to do it virtual so that I can work from home with flexible hours, as can my staff. And it's been different. It's been a challenge for me to create that virtual corporate culture, but it's just as exciting," she says, suggesting that entrepreneurs' preconceived ideas about how to source and relate to talent can be limiting.

"With entrepreneurism, people tend to think that you're going to be working 24-7," she concludes. “Whereas for me, there's not a one-size-fits-all approach, especially not with technology nowadays." So why would a young business owner opt to follow Sutton Fell's example and find talent to telecommute? She offers two big reasons:

Talent on a shoestring. "Especially for start-ups and ones that are really either bootstrapping or on a really tight budget," tapping into a broader talent pool can tap be a money-saver, according to Sutton Fell. "People located in non-urban areas tend to have a lower cost of living and therefore have a lower salary or hourly expectation," she says. "I've seen candidates who have very similar qualifications but one living in New York City or London, for example, versus one living in Kansas is very different."

Exchanging flexibility for cash. "Numerous studies show people will take pay cuts for more flexibility," says Sutton Fell. "One of the more recent studies I've seen says that 37 percent of non-teleworkers surveyed would take a pay cut to be able to have more independence in where and how they work, so that’s you know a pretty big chunk of the workforce that would be interested in working for less for the option to telecommute.”

Of course, not every new business, or role within one, is suitable for remote work. Work that is primarily collaborative, “probably should not be either exclusively or primarily telecommuting oriented,” says Sutton Fell, but that still leaves a lot of computer-based, independent work that can be done at a distance. “It could be research and data, writing, customer service, business development, programming, development, design. It just goes on and on,” she says.

However, hiring telecommuters does demand a thoughtful hiring process, according to Sutton Fell, starting with a thorough jobs description specifying exactly what sort of person you’re looking for. Obviously, comfort with tech is necessary, but so are a intangibles, says Sutton Fell, who looks for candidates "who believe in proactive communication and are very comfortable working independently and asking questions," when she’s hiring remotely.

A passion for the company is also a must because, while a willingness to crash under a desk isn't necessary, passion still is. "I would find somebody who has a passion for what my company’s doing, or someone who really enjoys the entrepreneurial environment," recommends Sutton Fell:

If they've worked at IBM all their life and then they’re switching to a small telecommuting startup, you need to be pretty sure that they understand what that transition’s going to mean. I look for fit, and for me, that does boil down a lot to passion for the company because that lends a bit more loyalty and belief in what they’re doing, which I think has been a very great and tangible benefit to people who aren’t necessarily in the office. You don’t have the opportunity to create a corporate culture the same way as you do on site. It’s not as visible, obviously. But you very much can create a corporate culture in a virtual company or in one that has a lot of telecommuters. It just has to be focused more about the company and the mission and the excitement and the energy.

Could hiring remote workers be a way for your small business to grow at lower cost? 

Last updated: Jan 6, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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