There's no one right way to run a virtual small business. There's only the right way for your particular business.
That's the consensus of executives who own, run or are employed by virtual small and mid-sized companies, all businesses that exist on paper but don't necessarily have a headquarters, or in some cases, even employees.
People who run them believe that while virtual companies don't have all the characteristics of a conventional business, they can be as successful if owners and managers are committed to:
- Maintaining a strong corporate culture
- Using technology to get work done and promote communications internally as well as with customers and suppliers
- Getting staff together periodically for strategizing, team building and having fun
Here are some observations and lessons learned from owners or managers at two virtual companies:
Automattic -- Keeping it small for a reason
Matt Mullenweg started a free blogging website called Wordpress.com
That has become one of the biggest names in the blogging business. Five years and three million users later, Mullenweg, head of the blogging website's parent company, Automattic, still works at home.
Over five years, Automattic's staff has grown from a handful to the purposely small number of 20. Employees live around the United States, Australia, and Europe. Since blogging is the company's business, employees keep track of each other through their blogs. Automattic also holds regular in-person powwows to strategize and have fun, according to Mullenweg.
Earlier this year, Automattic picked up $29.5 million in funding from Silicon Valley venture firms and The New York Times, which uses Wordpress to host blogs for the paper and About.com, which it also owns. But even that hasn't convinced Mullenweg to open an office. 'I live about a block away from the offices of one of our investors, so if we have meetings we go there,' Mullenweg says.
Mullenweg reasons that the lower the company's operating costs, the more money he can sink into research and development. 'With the new funding we're hoping to be as efficient as we were with' the initial $1 million the company raised, which never left the bank. 'It'll allow us to take some small action and invest in more long term' projects, he says.
Cheetah Training -- Outsource everything
About 100 people work for Cheetah Trainingbut only a handful of them are employees. The $10 million Carson City, Nev., training firm has a core staff of 13 who run the show, but trainers for the project management courses it offers are independent contractors. The balance of the business is outsourced to third parties that handle functions such as accounting, IT, marketing and advertising.
'I used to have an office but I got rid of it because it wasn't adding value, just cost,' says Cheetah Learning founder Michelle LaBrosse, who commutes between offices in Carson City and Haines, Alaska.
Communications between employees, outsourcers, and contractors 'is a well-oiled machine,' LaBrosse says. People use e-mail, weekly phone check-ins, and IM to stay in touch on daily business and projects. The company also uses wikis hosted by Joomla to collaborate on new initiatives, LaBroose says. 'My corporate culture is strong even though people rarely see each other. Everyone prides themselves on being a Cheetah and I don't need a specific location to make that come alive. I just need a really good information management system.'
'We don't really care when people work. We manage based on deliverables,' adds LaBrosse. 'People who aren't responsive don't last.' People who do need face time are 'extremely annoying,' she says. 'If they can't work independently why am I hiring them?'
By using independent contractor trainers who live all over the place, Cheetah can offer classes in the United States, Europe, and around the world, a distinction that's earned it training industry honors.
SIDEBAR: Learn More about Running a Virtual Company
Read more about virtual companies here:
Gigaom -- This article on the Gigaom technology blog examines a law the state of Vermont passed in June 2008 that revamps requirements for establishing a corporation by allowing for online board meetings, among other things.
The Handbook of High Performance Virtual Teams -- A guidebook to managing virtual teams, published in March 2008 by John Wiley & Sons.